The much-talked about, long-awaited news that kept the world on hold are finally a reality today – Havana and Washington have inaugurated their respective embassies in each other’s countries after nearly sixty years of complete diplomatic shutdown and downright hostility between the two nations.
About time, or, as some Americans from the Wild Wild West might have said, it was “about darn time” that Cuba and the U.S. bridged over their differences and started working together for the benefit of both neighbouring nations; bonded and separated by as many ties as disputes over the course of more than a century.
A brief background on U.S. - Cuba history
It’s no secret to anyone that Cuba has long been coveted by the U.S. since the turn of the 19th century, with four different U.S. presidents (Polk, Buchanan, Grant and McKinley) having tried to buy the island from Spain. Towards the end of Cuba’s Independence Wars, a conspiracy theory (which Cuba holds as the true official version) says that in January 1898 the Americans went as far as to sinking their own ship docked in Cuba (the Maine) to blame the Spanish and later side with the Cuban independence fighters to declare war on them - a war that the U.S. successfully won and which resulted in Cuba’s formal independence.
Thanks to this victory the U.S. obtained Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines and parts of the Spanish West Indies that Spain ceded through the Treaty of Paris, and, of course, they couldn’t attempt to get hold of Cuba as well when they had been fighting alongside them for their freedom; but they started heavily interfering in all political Cuban affairs, with subsequent Cuban governments being mere pawns upholding U.S. interests….that is of course until Fidel Castro’s Revolution triumphed and gave way to the unfolding of yet another whole set of dramatic events between the two nations.
Oh yes, both countries’ history has been intertwined in drastic ways that have put the world on hold, with millions gasping for their breath as Khrushchev and Kennedy threatened to wipe out two enormous chunks of the world’s population with nuclear missiles positioned in Cuba under Castro’s permission…yes, animosities between Cuba and the U.S. were indeed serious, at times downright dangerous, reckless and fierce… and one can’t underestimate this troublesome past history full of hatred and resentment in order to fully appreciate the significance of the changes that now come about and how their approaches towards each other have changed in the short space of the last three to four years. Remarkable, no doubt. It took them very long to get here, where they are now, and not all matters will be instantly resolved, yet they give enormous hope for a future of respectful cordiality and cooperation.
Yes, both nations took their own sweet time to restore relations and start working together, brushing over differences and leaving the past firmly behind in order to move forward and push on for a brighter, more optimistic future. But it took two noteworthy leaders to do this, two that have been praised for their progressive views on both sides: Barack Obama and Raul Castro.
Pacing their way forward, paving the way onwards - slowly but surely
The rapprochment indeed wasn’t an easy or immediate, nor a straightforward move, but its pace was more dynamic than most could predict. Cubans are by nature very proud and the government certainly never wanted to look like they were being bought by the lure of American money and trade promises. They set guidelines and put firm boundaries in how far and what things they were prepared to change, what was negotiable and what wasn’t, they established their limits and perhaps they took longer and hesitated at times on some issues, but yet they made efforts like never before to see this thawing process come to good terms and here is the outcome.
The U.S. and Cuba start over today, and whilst it might not exactly be on a clean slate, they are certainly turning over a new leaf and laying the foundations for a new era of mutual understanding, respect and cooperation.
The fact that it all wasn’t an overnight process also means that it hadn't all suddenly kickstarded on 17th December 2014 - under the surface much went on a few years before Obama and Castro’s respective speeches; a few moves made by both governments signalled the official start of it all - a series of significant events, big and small that paved the way for the open declaration of renewing ties.
If you want to see how it all happened, how the changes unfolded, in this post we briefly outline all that preceded Obama’s much publicised fully-fledged speech on changing U.S. strategy towards Cuba.
We have carefully constructed a timeline illustrating all significant events that took place after President Barack Obama’s historic speech on 17th December 2014 in the build-up to the official opening of the embassies today, 20th July 2015. But much happened prior to this that opened the way for negotiations long before either president declared each other’s intentions to the world concerning the removal of barriers from both ends.
2008 and 2009 – Obama lights a candle of hope and Raul Castro announces reforms
Most newspapers and publications refer to the official Cuban thaw as the process that begun with the delivery of President Obama’s speech last December. Yet many things and changes took place before both countries’ presidents were ready to make the move official. Here we list the series of prior events that were crucial in the deliverance of these speeches eventually taking place.
Almost immediately after coming into power on 20th January 2009, President Barack Obama, America’s first black president and the first in many other aspects, dedicated time to address certain Cuban policies and fulfil some of the promises he had made during his electoral campaign in regards to Cuba.
Changes leading up to the thawing process from the U.S. side
- A new legislation is introduced in Congress from a bipartisan group of U.S. senators to permit unlimited travel to Cuba. The new bill entitled the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act is pushed forward by lawmakers who believe that allowing U.S. citizens to visit Cuba freely will help in breaking down economic and trade barriers between the two estranged nations. In the words of Senator Byron Dorgan on 31st March “Increased travel to the island nation will further the cause of democracy, advance human rights and be beneficial for U.S. agriculture and business groups.”
- Upon being elected in 2009, on 13th April Obama announces the end of restrictions for Cuban-Americans and US-born citizens to visit their families in Cuba (under Bush they were only allowed to travel to Cuba once every three years and couldn’t give Cuban relatives remittances over $300). They can now travel to the island freely and limitlessly as well as send their Cuban relatives unlimited remittances.
- Allowance of non-family remittances is established – President Obama believes this will help expand the economic independence of the Cuban people and will support a better Cuban civil society. Under this category any U.S. person can send remittances of up to $500 per quarter (this quantity went on to increase to $2,000 per quarter) to non-family members in Cuba, with the limitation that these funds cannot be in any way used by or handed to government officials or senior members of the Cuban Coummunist Party.
- Ban on U.S. telecommunications companies reaching out to Cuba is lifted and President Obama also gets rid of virtually all U.S. regulation that had previously hindered U.S. companies from bringing high-tech services and information to the island.
- After an eight-year hiatus, on 28th January 2011, Obama re-established the People to People programme (which was founded in 1999 and opened the door to legal travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens through cultural exchange trips, it was later shut down by President Bush in 2003)
All these announcements and changes led to widespread speculation that soon charter flights and even direct commercial flights to Cuba could become a reality even without the complete lift of the embargo. Many U.S. companies watch both nations’ moves carefully and with great expectation as more changes looked likely in the horizon.
But for Obama to bring about these changes in legislation it took more than his own determination to establish a new strategy of softer approach when dealing with Cuba. It all didn’t happen on his will to change things alone, but also upon the observation of clear changes that Cuba had been making on its part without external intervention or influence.
The Cuban side - Raul Castro replaces Fidel Castro as President of Cuba
Much like Obama, but almost a year before he was elected on 4th November 2008, it was only days before Raul Castro announced a series of reforms in Cuba after becoming the Caribbean island’s official new President.
At this point in time Cuba had recently undergone its biggest political change in over 50 years when in 2008 Fidel Castro, due to an illness, officially resigned his post and left brother Raul Castro as his successor and new President of the Republic. He was elected President of the Council of State and President of the Council of Ministers of Cuba by Cuba’s National Assembly on 19th February 2008.
Shortly after Raul Castro’s coming into power a series of changes were announced that indicated a progressive and gradual move away from Fidel Castro’s paternalistic approach without renouncing to the nation's socialist character, which must prevail above all changes and reforms.
Just days after his election Raul took considerable steps, new measures and changes in legislation to free up Cuban economy and give more freedom for Cubans to conduct business and to have more say in how the country’s social was shaped. He acknowledged “inefficiency” across a variety of nationalised industries and urged for this to be drastically changed. He addressed overstaffing and told the people of Cuba that the reliance on government to provide jobs was much too heavy, encouraging them and facilitating this with a series of loans.
Thus the creation of a new private sector in Cuba with the full backing of government was born….and Washington was closely watching. Cuba decides to abandon its paternalistic approach to centralising work and exerts entrepreneurs to set up their own business and help boost the country’s economy through their own endeavours. Many speculate that Castro wants to bring the Chinese model of free market economy in a communist society to Cuba.
During an interview in early 2008, Raul Castro made a revealing statement of things to come and the changing mentality of the Cuban government towards the U.S. when he said:
"The American people are among our closest neighbours. We should respect each other. We have never held anything against the American people. Good relations would be mutually advantageous. Perhaps we cannot solve all of our problems, but we can solve a good many of them."
On Cuba’s part,changes that led up to the renewal of ties included
- In March 2008 the Cuban government removes restrictions against the purchase, owning and bringing into the country a number of products not available to buy under Fidel Castro’s reign, including electronical items such as computers, DVD players, car alarms, 19” and 24” TV sets and appliances like air conditioners, refrigerators, electric pressure and rice cookers and microwaves. All these items had been previously restricted due to the island’s limited power supply.
- To the surprise of many, in March 2009 Raul Castro dismisses numerous long-standing high-profile government ministers and appoints new ones. The move is backed by a statement released by Fidel Castro on 3rd March in which he reveals that some of these ministers and well-known figures had grown to love power too much. His statement is followed by the resignation of the Secretary of Council of Ministers and a resignation letter from the Foreign Minister in which he declared he had committed errors. The Economy Minister, Foreign Trade Minister, Finance Minister, Labour Minister, Internal Commerce Minister, Food Minister, Education Minister, Heavy Industries Minister and Government Vice President followed suit in leaving their posts as replacements were announced. Many external sources view this historic political wipe-out as Raul Castro’s way to get rid of people who stood in the way of economic reforms.
- In April 2011 Cuban President Raul Castro announces several economic reforms to take place over the course of the following years.
- Cubans can now buy and sell houses (where before they were only able to “permutar” a Cuban word for exchanging ownership of houses).
- Cubans can now freely exit the country and travel abroad without the need of applying and paying for an Exit Permit.
- Also in April the same year, Raul Castro declared that top political positions in the Cuban government would be limited to 10 years (split into two five-year terms), making clear that these new limits would also apply to himself. In his speech went on to say that the Communist Party’s leadership was in need of renewal and should subject itself to severe self-criticism while Cuba should overcome its “mentality of inertia” and the only real danger to the future of the revolution was the country’s inability to rectify errors.
- Some unused state land is ceded to farmers so that they work it and make it productive once again.
- Following on from the speech he gave in April 2011, two years later, on February 2013, shortly after being re-elected, Raul Castro, announces he will leave his post as Cuba’s president in 2018 when his five-year re-election mandate comes to an end. This signals the end of a five-decade era to the Castro brother’s power hold and First Vice President, Miguel Diaz-Canel, looks as the next likely candidate for election.
In a significant moment that forever marked history and perfectly illustrated the changes these two nations were experiencing towards each other, almost exactly a year before both presidents delivered speeches on their eagerness of re-establishing ties; the world watched in awe as Raul Castro and Barack Obama shook hands and cordially greeted each other during the Nelson Mandela memorial service in Johannesburg which took place on 10th December 2013.
A promising preamble before it all officially kicked off
Just a month before the famous Obama speech on changing policy towards Cuba, broadcasted 17th December 2014; on 20 November 2014, Cuba Travel Services announced the offering of direct flights from New York’s JFK Airport to Havana Cuba. The new flights, operated by American Airlines and Sun Country Airlines, add on to the company’s already existing charter flights to popular destinations in Cuba such as Cienfuegos, Santa Clara, Holguin and Santiago de Cuba.
From this point on speculation is rife with legal direct commercial flights to soon follow.
What the future holds for Cuba and the U.S.
What the future holds nobody knows but based on what happened today after nearly six decades of shutdown and icy distancing, we can only expect good things to come. We’re keeping our eyes peeled and our pens at the ready to keep you updated with more Cuba-U.S. developments.
Cuba and the U.S.'s has long been a complicated love-hate relationship, where both sides love as much as abhorr each other in different ways. American culture is deeply embedded in Cuban culture, after all Cubans play baseball and not football like most of the former Spanish colonies in Latin America do. After decades of the U.S. heavily influencing Cuba, some of these influences inevitably remain today and most Cubans embrace this as they consider it part of their own culture.
What do Cubans who live in Cuba want? I'd venture to say they're all much tired of all political games and blames and they welcome the opportunity to befriend their American neighbours without letting them take over or attempt to steal their freedom, identity and values. Most Cubans' affections are divided anyway with large chunks of families residing in the U.S. so the natural step forward would be to work together, differences aside, for a brighter, resentment-free future.
In the meantime, Cuba is still eagerly waiting for the end of the embargo and they will keep pressing the U.S. to lift it once and for all, only then can true commercialisation and business engagement between the two nations begin. And, until then Cuba won't be entirely happy.