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An exploration of current events and controversial topics in Latin America.
Towards a Normalization of Cuba-United
States Relations
After more than fifty years of hostility, history was made on December
17, 2014 when Presidents Barack
Obama and Raúl Castro agreed to
move towards restoring diplomatic
relations with each other. On the following January 21 and 22, follow-up
meetings took place in Havana between Roberta Jacobson, Assistant
Secretary of State for the Western
Hemisphere, and Josefina Vidal, head
of the U.S. Section of Cuba’s Ministry
of Foreign Relations. The objective
was to discuss details of the agreement reached by both presidents on
working towards a normalization of
bilateral relations. These matters are
complicated, but will have to be resolved before the thorny issue of the
embargo can be discussed. It will
prove to be a long and challenging
The Presidents’ Agreement December 17, 2014)
The ground-breaking agreement is
ambitious, with both sides seeking to
protect their ideological territory, and
explain their interpretation of several
fundamental issues, such as their
different interpretations of democracy and human rights—without
offending the other. It had taken a
tremendous effort to reach this stage
(7 meetings in Canada, culminating in
a secret Vatican discussion) and so it
was important for both parties not to
isolate the other. Both realized that
there were significant gains to be
made from a re-establishment of relations—and too that there were tremendous hurdles to cross first.
There are several straightforward
issues to the agreement that were
reached: proper embassies and ambassadors are to replace the “Special
“directors” that currently exist, while
diplomatic personnel are to have
freedom of movement, and to import
goods for official purposes. There
was also an exchange of political prisoners: Alan Gross, who had been
working on an illegal USAID-funded
communications project, an unidentified Cuban spy who had been working
for Washington, and the three remaining “counter-terrorists” who had
spent over 15 years in U.S. prisons,
were all released. These represent
important concessions by both parties.
There was also general agreement
about the need to strengthen bilat-
A Latin American Research Centre publication
February 2015
By John M. Kirk
John Kirk is Professor of Latin
American Studies at Dalhousie
University. His research focuses mainly on contemporary Cuba, and he is the author/coeditor of 14 books dealing with
foreign relations, political history and culture of Cuba. The
most recent are A Contemporary Cuba Reader: The Revolution under Raúl Castro (2015),
Fighting Words: Competing
Voices from Revolutionary Cuba
(2009), Cuban Medical International: Origins, Evolution and
Goals (2009), and Healthcare
without Borders: Understanding
Cuban Medical Internationalism
(due out in July). He is the editor of the Contemporary Cuba
series of the University Press of
Florida, and a member of the
editorial board of the International Journal of Cuban Studies,
and Estudios del Desarrollo Social: Cuba y América Latina.
Page 2
Josefina Vidal, Head of the U.S. Section of Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations.
eral agreements on migration,
counter-narcotics operations, environmental protection and human trafficking policies. More significant was the interest in encouraging people-to-people exchanges,
although Obama did not lift the
prohibition on U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba. Travel restrictions
were, however, made more flexible for the 12 approved categories
under which U.S. citizens are allowed to visit Cuba (education,
journalism, cultural exchange,
etc.) on general licences, instead
of seeking specific approval for
each case. Travel agencies were
also allowed now to operate with
general licences, and U.S. tourists
were to be able to bring in Cuban
goods to the value of $400.
Obama made clear that he was
particularly keen to promote the
growth of small, independent
businesses, and to support the
nascent private sector. He therefore sought to provide “alternative
sources of information and opportunities for self-employment and
private property ownership, and
by strengthening independent civil
society”. (1)
Remittance limits
were increased fourfold (to $2,000
per quarter), allowing CubanAmericans to support the entrepreneurial activities of selfemployed relatives. A list of goods
that could be exported to the private sector was to be published
(significant because the current
embargo prohibits this at present).
The objective, according to
Obama, was to help Cubans “gain
greater economic independence
from the state” (p.4).
The Cuban response was best
articulated in a speech given by
Raúl Castro on December 20. He
repeated the longstanding interest
of Cuba to work towards the normalization of relations, but reminded Obama that “every state
has the inalienable right to choose
their own political, economic, social and cultural form of government, without the interference in
any way of another state”. (2)
Clearly aware of Obama’s interest
in bringing about significant political change in Cuba, he stated his
objections, clearly and unequivocally.
He also noted that Cuba had
“firm convictions and many con-
A Latin American Research Centre publication
cerns about events in the United
States in terms of the system of
democracy as well as the human
rights situation” but would not
interfere in internal U.S. matters.
The message was clear: revolutionary Cuba was adamant about
protecting its socialist system, and
rejected any U.S. intents at changing it. Clearly, while both presidents sought to forge a diplomatic
agreement, they were far apart on
some fundamental aspects.
The Goals of the Meetings in
Havana (January 21-22, 2015)
Two days were spent in negotiations, the first on migration issues,
and the second on the question of
re-establishing diplomatic relations. U.S. media coverage was
extensive, and in general extremely superficial. Expectations that
“normalization” could occur swiftly were almost universally naïve,
and were quickly dashed, since
both sides had radically different
interpretations of how they should
proceed, what the goals were, and
how these could be reached.
There was a fundamental
difference of opinion over several
key issues. The U.S. position insisted that Cuba relax political
control, allow greater freedom of
expression, and show more respect for human rights. Cuba saw
these demands as an unacceptable infringement on their sovereignty, and indeed unjustifiable
meddling. Raúl Castro explained
Cuba’s position clearly.
countries should expect to maintain their own political system,
regardless of ideological differences with the other: “Just as we
Page 3
have never proposed that the
United States should change their
political system, so too we demand respect for our own”.
Related to this major issue
were several other key questions.
The issue of compensation for the
almost 6,000 American citizens
and companies who had their
properties expropriated is among
them. The claims, adjusted for
inflation, amount to some $7 billion. In contrast Cuba is claiming
reparation for the 3,400 lives lost
as a result of terrorist activities
stemming from the United States
(many sanctioned by various administrations that sought to topple
the revolutionary government). In
addition, Cuba claims that the embargo has resulted in Cuba spending an extra $1.1 trillion.
Several other key irritants
were discussed. Washington defended the Cuba Adjustment Act
of 1966, which allows Cubans to
reside legally in the United States
as soon as they touch American
soil. It is applied solely to Cubans.
This policy (known as “wet footdry foot”) is rejected by Havana,
which sees it as encouraging illegal
(and dangerous) emigration. If
there are “normal” bilateral relations, they argue, why can Cubans
not just travel between both countries? After all, since January 2013
Cubans have been free to travel
outside the country for up to two
years (while ironically most Americans are denied that right by
duced by the George W. Bush administration. The objective is to
encourage Cuban medical personnel serving abroad in developing
countries to defect, thus decreasing the international respect for
Cuba’s medical internationalism
programme. Havana objects to
this, noting that this results in taking medical services away from
those who need it most in poor,
developing countries. Washington
refused to drop the programme.
Washington also keeps Cuba
on the list of countries (along with
Iran, Sudan and Syria) that allegedly sponsor terrorism, much to
Havana’s frustration. Clearly there
is a lack of logic in moving towards
normalization of bilateral relations
if Cuba is sponsoring terrorism.
This policy can be overturned by
presidential fiat, and most likely
Cuba will be removed from the list
in the coming months. Secretary
of State John Kerry has been asked
to investigate this situation, and
indeed has offered to travel to Cuba when diplomatic relations are
Another key issue not discussed was the situation of Guantánamo. Obama had promised to
close down the detention centre
early in his first mandate, and re-
This policy of exceptionalism
towards Cuban citizens is also
seen in the Cuban Medical Professional Parole programme, introA Latin American Research Centre publication
mains keen to do so. Meanwhile
Cuba would like the entire U.S.
military base (on 45 square miles
of Cuban territory), occupied at
the beginning of the 20th century,
to be returned.
There are clearly many key areas that need to be addressed before the re-establishment of diplomatic
“normalization” of relations will
come much later, and before that
occurs, the very problematic issue
of the embargo has to be resolved.
That can only take place following
an agreement to do so by the Republican-controlled
where presidential hopefuls such
as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Jeb
Bush have all expressed outspoken
opposition to Obama’s approach
to Cuba.
The most recent polls show
that 60-63% of Americans favour
the re-establishment of relations
with Cuba, as do most CubanAmericans. Likewise, scores of
U.S. businesses have expressed
their interest in exporting to and
investing in the island, a position
strongly favoured by Thomas
Donohue, President of the U.S.
Chamber of Commerce. The commercial interests are wide-ranging,
Page 4
from hotel chains to farming
equipment manufacturers, airlines
to communications technology
companies, and all have urged
Congress to support Obama’s initiative. It will be interesting to see
whether the business lobby and
American citizens (3 million of
whom have expressed an interest
in visiting Cuba once U.S. law permits this) manage to influence the
Senate, and overturn the recalcitrant views of some senators.
The Significance of the Meetings
While there are many major challenges that need to be overcome,
the meetings that took place in
January of 2015 were nevertheless
extremely important. Particularly
significant was the symbolism of
the occasion, since Roberta Jacobson was the highest-ranking U.S.
official to visit Cuba in over 30
So, what was achieved? In
terms of specific agreements or
decisions, not much—apart from
agreeing to meet again for further
discussions. Some progress was
made on migration matters, on
areas of mutual cooperation (such
as disaster relief and cultural exchanges, migration and tourism).
What is important is that an
attempt was made to introduce
confidencebuilding measures. The atmosphere for the discussions was cordial, respectful, and friendly. Both
sides aired profoundly-rooted
differences of opinion, but did so
in a careful, non-threatening manner. There appears to be a genuine interest in reaching an agreement.
Finally, both are aware that, as
President Obama noted, “We cannot keep doing the same thing and
expect a different result”. (3) Political will was shown by both Cuba
and the United States to meet and
work towards a peaceful solution
following five decades of mutual
recrimination and hostility, in itself
a major breakthrough. Both sides
are now well aware of the positions of the other, and there may
well be further progress before
Raúl Castro and Barack Obama
meet at the Cumbre de las Américas in Panama, in April 2015.
This will be a process fraught
with difficulties, weighed down by
five decades of mutual recrimination and hostility. That said, if
both sides have the political will to
make concessions, and can agree
to disagree over fundamental philosophical differences, there is
some possibility of the breakthrough that most Americans and
Cubans want--and which the entire planet has been waiting for.
(4) However, it is important to be
realistic in our expectations, for as
that time-honoured refrain of the
“Special Period” in Cuba notes,
“no es fácil”…
John M. Kirk
(1) Office of the Press Secretary, The
White House, “Fact Sheet:
Charting A New Course on Cuba,”
December 17, 2014, p. 3.
(2) “Raúl Castro: Compartimos la
idea de que puede abrirse una
nueva etapa entre EEUU y Cuba,”
Cubadebate, December 20, 2014.
(3) Office of the Press Secretary, p.
(4) In October 2014 the U.N. General
Assembly voted—for the 23rd
time—to condemn the U.S. embargo of Cuba. Some 188 countries voted in favour of the Cuban
position with only 2 (the United
States and Israel) opposed, and 3
(Palau, the Marshall Islands and
Micronesia, with a combined
population of 177,000) abstaining.
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A Latin American Research Centre publication