In his last press conference of 2016, President Barack Obama reflected on his policy toward Cuba. “Through diplomacy,” he stated, “We opened a new chapter with the people of Cuba.” Indeed, the 2014 prisoner swap and the 2015 decision to re-open an embassy in Havana were milestones in a relationship that has been fraught with tension for 55 years. Even more, the Obama administration’s work on Cuba should be considered a significant step forward in normalizing diplomacy and trade in a Latin American region that has almost fallen to the wayside with so much aid and attention being devoted to “fixing” the Middle East.
Yet, aside from the added benefit that Cuban cigars are now legal, there are few advantages to how quickly Obama moved to solidify his legacy and to shore up a problem that is much more complicated than his administration made it appear. As exciting as it is to watch Cuba brought into the international fold once again, the White House moved too soon to re-open relations. Set aside the fact that President-elect Donald Trump now aims to reverse almost all the progress Obama has made with Cuba and evidence still points to some searing holes in his administration’s previous plans: the resistance on Capitol Hill, the lack of a strategy on Guantanamo, and the failure to put in place protections to save some of the innovations of which Cuba is most proud.
Congressional leadership has not been shy in voicing dissent about the new relationship. The President’s nomination of Jeffrey DeLaurentis for Cuban Ambassador caused an outcry from the Senate and House alike. The lame-duck nomination, which was called “highly unlikely” to move forward by Senator Bob Corker (R-TN), the chairman of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, was clearly futile, further alienated Republicans, and publicly revealed the hesitation in Washington to a skeptical Cuba. The 2017 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act (H.R.5485) passed by the House and currently sitting in the Senate contains a number of provisions that would further tighten sanctions toward Cuba, like a prohibition on travel to Cuba for certain academic programs and an amendment to ban all financial transactions with Cuban military and intelligence services. By discouraging travel to Cuba, Congress essentially hampers educational exchange and better-informed and open-minded public relations between Americans and Cubans. The reactionary bill, a sign that Congress feels betrayed by the White House’s quick moves, could undermine any trust or credibility in the budding US-Cuba relationship. The bill could also reveal that the upbeat and encouraging rhetoric coming out of the White House related to Cuba may be hiding other faults in the plan.
Primarily, the US Guantanamo Bay military base remains an unsolved issue in the discussions between Havana and Washington. Not only have both sides taken non-negotiable stances on the base, but the international community continues to criticize the violation of Cuban national sovereignty. By pushing to move forward in restoring relations with Cuba without having a realistic plan on turning over a doomed Guantanamo base, Obama opened the United States to sharp global criticism and harmed any faith Raul Castro and his government may have in American good intentions. In fact, the President may have forced further Cuban dependence on the United States by denying Cuba the right to operate a base perfectly situated for increased trade given the current widening of the Panama Canal. The official restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States does not mean that the controversial Guantanamo Bay will be in the news any less.
Although not well known to the general American public, Cuba has a thriving sustainable agricultural industry and an innovative medical research field. However, both types of innovations are at stake as a result of the Obama administration’s hasty reopening of relations with Cuba. With a new US-Cuba agricultural accord, there will be increased interest by US agribusiness in exporting in Cuba, thereby increasing competition and shutting out the small, self-sustaining ecoagricultural groups in Cuba. Similarly, the desire to draw creative healthcare professionals to the United States to augment research and development in the States will hurt the Cuban system as well as lead to brain drain. If the Obama administration had taken the time to introduce regulations and safety measures to protect Cuba’s small and vulnerable, but innovative industries, the United States might have benefitted more in the long run.
In general, that seems to be the main theme in US-Cuba relations: a rushed process that might be working well for now, but will start to show bigger and bigger cracks further down the road. After the recent death of longtime leader and revolutionary Fidel Castro, Cuba faces a long road of political transformation. Who is to say how drastic re-structuring in Havana will destabilize the new US-Cuba relationship? And despite the best of intentions on the part of the White House, the potential drama created by rushed, haphazard diplomacy with Cuba will not be healthy for Latin America. At this point, the best that the Obama administration can do, to fulfill their mission of empowering the Cuban people, is to hit the brakes and reassess the impact of the changes so far.
Anna Blue earned her BA in International Relations from Stanford University in 2016. Anna is an incoming 2017 Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP).
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