Starting with the humanitarian release of USAID subcontractor, Alan Gross, who had been jailed in Cuba since 2011 following charges of espionage, and an unnamed U.S. spy in exchange for three Cubans jailed in Florida for spying, today marks the most dramatic shift in United States-Cuban relations since the Bay of Pigs.
The U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Cuba by placing it under embargo in 1961 and then put Cuba on the list of State Sponsors of Terror in 1982. Responding to shifting views towards Cuba even amongst formerly steadfast anti-Castro strongholds like Miami, the White House released a fact sheet today admitting that, “It is clear that decades of U.S. isolation of Cuba have failed to accomplish our enduring objective of promoting the emergence of a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba.” In a nod to the critics of the Cuban embargo, the fact sheet continued on to say that, “We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse.”
Here are the key components to the policy change:
Re-establishment Diplomatic Relations: Secretary of State John Kerry has been instructed by the President to immediately initiate discussions with Cuba on the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. will open an embassy in Havana and carry out high-level exchanges and visits between the two governments as part of the normalization process for the first time since 1961. In an effort to work together on issues of mutual interest, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs will lead the U.S. Delegation to the next round of U.S.-Cuba Migration Talks in January 2015, in Havana.
Expansion of Non-Tourist Travel: The announcement eases travel restrictions across the only 12 categories currently permitted under the current limitations, including family visits, official visits, journalistic, professional, educational and religious activities, and public performances. Ordinary tourism, however, will remain prohibited, even as American debit cards and credit cards are now permitted for use by travelers.
Increased Remittances: The amount of remittance (money that people with family remaining in Cuba are allowed to send back) will be raised from $500 to $2,000 per quarter. This will have a direct impact on the improvement of the lives of the Cuban people and the flow of cash in the economy as people have more money to spend on goods at home.
Expansion of Commerce: In his speech on Wednesday, President Obama noted that the current U.S. policy towards Cuba “prevents the most basic commerce and travel that Americans enjoy anywhere else.” Accordingly, this new shift would allow for American businesses to export more goods to the growing Cuban private sector and to Cuban farmers. Making it easier to get goods from the U.S. will be a boost to the new class of private-sector employees, now nearly 500,000 strong, in Cuba that have spearheaded the rise in small businesses and entrepreneurship in the country.
Reevaluating Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism: Acknowledging that terrorism has changed since 1982 with the rise of non-state terrorist actors like ISIL and Al-Qaeda posing a far greater threat to American safety than Cuba, President Obama has asked that Cuba’s status as a “State Sponsor of Terror” to be reviewed. Undoubtedly, the anti-Castro lobby in Congress will put pressure on the president and Secretary Kerry to maintain this status as long as the Castros remain in power. Cuba’s human rights record remains deplorable, even as now-president Raul Castro has lifted many of the restrictions on the Cuban people. It remains to be seen if Kerry will bend to the pressure of the Lobby or decide that human rights violations do not amount to terrorism.
However, it should be noted that sanctions against Cuba remain.The move to normalize diplomatic and economic relations does not extend to lifting the 53-year old embargo on Cuba. Although the president has called for “honest and serious debate" and acknowledged that America was the only country to impose such strict measures on Cuba, the task of ending the Cuban embargo remains firmly with Congress. In the current Republican-led Congress-with staunch anti-Castro Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen on the House Foreign Relations Committee-this will be a hard sell for the White House.
The importance of this shift in policy towards Cuba cannot be understated. For the first time in many of our lifetime, the American and Cuban presidents have spoken over the phone and diplomats from both countries are working towards shared interests.
France François is the creator of the Black in Cairo blog and has a background in development and conflict resolution. Tweet her: @frenchieglobal
France Francois is the award-winning blogger behind the Black in Cairo blog. Follow her on Twitter at @Frenchieglobal