Saturday, December 20, 2014

VOXXI: US-Cuba relations after President Obama’s speech

"US-Cuba Relations After President Obama's Speech"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
December 17, 2014
Originally published:

Today, Wednesday 17, US-Cuba relations were shaken down to their core due to two recent events.
First there was a prisoner swap between Washington and Havana, which saw the release of U.S. citizen Alan Gross, detained in Cuba, and three Cubans detained in the U.S. Secondly, President Barack Obama gave a speech at noon which charts a new roadmap for US-Cuba relations.
Nevertheless, as is the nature of Washington-Havana relations over the past decades, how much of this is hyperbole and how many objectives ultimately materialize remains to be seen.
Alan Gross spent nearly five years as he was accused by the Cuban government of being a U.S. spy while he was working in Cuba for USAID. Similarly, the three Cubans are part of the “Cuban 5,” an alleged spy network set up by the Cuban government in the U.S. The five were arrested in 1998 and convicted in 2001, two were released years later but three remained in prison.
It’s not the objective of this article to discuss whether either Gross or the Cubans were actually involved in any kind of espionage activities. Unsurprisingly, both Havana and Washington argue that their citizens were wrongfully arrested.
The deal comes as a shock to everyone, as it was generally believed that neither government would release their respective prisoners anywhere in the near future.
Obama’s Speech
Shortly after the announcement of the Gross-Cuban 5 deal was made public, President Obama gave a brief but historical speech in which he outlines his vision for the future of US-Cuba relations.
The key word is that he seeks to “normalize” relations between the two governments.
The State Department has released a fact sheet of the speech’s key points, and we will briefly discuss a few important issues:
1. President Obama plans to participate in the 2015 Summit of the Americas, which will take place in Panama.
Historically, Washington has opposed Cuban participation in this summit. Case in point, the 2012 Summit in Colombia was generally an embarrassment for the host nation as the Colombian leadership had to “uninvite” Cuba in order to accommodate to Washington, which did not want a Cuban delegation present.
Meanwhile, throughout his speech, President Obama did not directly address the participation of the Cuban government in Panama, but rather said that “Cuban civil society must be allowed to participate […] consistent with the region’s commitments under the Inter-American Democratic Charter.”
In other words, Washington could still potentially block a Cuban official delegation from going to Panama.
2. President Obama managed to ease travel and trade restrictions to Cuba in 2011, however, only the U.S. Congress can terminate the embargo.
The fact to keep in mind is that after the recent Midterm elections, both chambers will now be controlled by the Republican Party. With conservatives like Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) among the Republican ranks, it is doubtful that this will happen. President Obama’s speech successfully placed pressure on the U.S. legislative body post-2015 to act on the future of US-Cuba relations.
3. Given the promises made by President Obama, which include that “licensed U.S. travelers to Cuba will be authorized to import $400 worth of goods from Cuba,” one must now ask, what will be the Cuban government’s next move?
Almost parallel to Obama’s speech, President Raul Castro also took to the airwaves to address his nation. First and foremost he praised the release of the Cuban 5 prisoners and he congratulated President Obama’s decision to agree to the swap.
He also “proposed” to the U.S. to adopt initiatives to improve relations in the spirt of the Charter of the United Nations. Nevertheless, Castro mentioned that in spite of the prison swap and renewed diplomatic ties, “the problem has not been solved.” The Cuban leader was referring to the embargo, which Castro said hurts Cuba’s economy and population.
While President Castro’s speech is similarly important, as it is not often that a Cuban leader praises a U.S. president, it remains to be seen if Havana will carry any new initiatives in the near future to keep the momentum going forward.
Relations between Cuba and the U.S. have been at a standstill for years and it seems that whenever there is a positive development, some kind of crisis occurs – case in point, the 2011 lifting of some restrictions was followed by the 2013 incident in which Cuba shipped weapons to North Korea.
For those who want to see US-Cuba relations improve, hopefully 2015 will be a year of positive breakthroughs between the two neighbors.

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