A spring thaw with Cuba?
It’s often assumed, or even taken for granted, that U.S. policy on Cuba is not dictated in Washington but in Miami by Cuban exiles who would rather die than allow Washington to negotiate with Havana. This interpretation holds the politics of a single Florida county responsible for a conflict that has lasted more than half a century. That might be one factor. But the real explanation is more complex.
Since the end of the Cold War, Cuba’s profile on the United States’ strategic radar has diminished. The island no longer has the significance it did nearly a quarter of a century ago when it had 50,000 soldiers in Angola and maintained a political alliance with the Soviet Union.
President Obama probably dedicates mere minutes to Cuba in his foreign policy endeavors. Yet Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, is part of the maritime hub that will emerge after the enlargement of the Panama Canal. And if you look at a map, the gulf ports closest to Mariel, Cuba, are Houston, New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., not Veracruz or Maracaibo.
In this new context, a current is emerging in the U.S. attitude toward Cuba that appears more favorable to change. In November, Obama told the Cuban American lobby that U.S. strategy ought to remain open to the changes on the island. And he acknowledged the idea that “the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.” One month later, he was shaking Cuban President Raul Castro’s hand at the memorial for Nelson Mandela.
Should these signs lead to real change, what U.S. political and geostrategic interests could be furthered by a rapprochement?
In economic terms, the embargo is beneficial to no one. Lifting it, or letting it fade away, could encompass the interests of farming states and agribusinesses, tourism and the biomedical, maritime transportation, pharmaceutical and oil industries, as well as U.S. ports along the Gulf of Mexico. It would also free a sector of Cuban American businessmen held hostage by established policy, allowing them to participate actively in bilateral economic relations.
In terms of security, dialogue would allow for a more permanent cooperation on drug-trafficking interception, air and sea security, coordination between military forces, civil defense and hurricane preparation, mutual public health challenges, protection of migratory species and shared environmental interests.
Never before has there been a Latin American context — in the region and within Cuba — more favorable to the normalization of bilateral relations.
Rafael Hernandez is chief editor of Temas, a Cuban social science magazine, and the co-editor of “Shall We Play Ball? Debating U.S.-Cuban Relations.”