United States–Cuban Thaw
President Obama meets with President Castro in Panama
|Date||July 20, 2015|
|Also known as||Normalization of relations between the governments of Cuba and the United States|
President of the United States Barack Obama,|
President of Cuba Raúl Castro,
Pope Francis, Holy See
|Outcome||Restoration of diplomatic relations between the two governments|
The Cuban Thaw (Spanish: deshielo cubano) is a warming of Cuba–United States relations that began in December 2014, ending a 54-year stretch of hostility between the nations. In March 2016, Barack Obama became the first U.S. President to visit Cuba since 1928.
On December 17, 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced the beginning of a process of normalizing relations between Cuba and the United States. The normalization agreement was secretly negotiated in preceding months, facilitated by Pope Francis and largely hosted by the Government of Canada. Meetings were held in both Canada and the Vatican City. The agreement would see the lifting of some U.S. travel restrictions, fewer restrictions on remittances, U.S. banks' access to the Cuban financial system, and the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana and the Cuban embassy in Washington, which both closed in 1961 after the breakup of diplomatic relations as a result of Cuba's close alliance with the USSR.
On April 14, 2015, the Obama administration announced that Cuba would be removed from the United States State Sponsors of Terrorism list. With no congressional action to block this within the permitted time period, Cuba was officially removed from the list on May 29, 2015. This marked a further departure by the United States from the Cold War conflict and its strain on Cuba–United States relations. On July 20, 2015, the Cuban and U.S. "interests sections" in Washington and Havana were upgraded to embassies.
In May 2012, it was reported that the U.S. had declined a "spy swap" proposed by the Cuban government, wherein the remaining three of an original group of Cuban prisoners the U.S. had convicted of espionage known as the Cuban Five, in prison in the U.S. since the 1990s, would be returned to Cuba in exchange for USAID contractor Alan Gross. Gross had been imprisoned in Cuba for providing illegal cellphone chips of a type used by CIA agents, which are designed to evade detection, in addition to computer equipment, satellite phones, and internet access to Cuba's Jewish community.
Despite initial U.S. refusals, the prisoner swap eventually took place in December 2014 following the President's announcement of intent to move towards normalized relations. In addition to Gross, the swap included Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a Cuban who had worked as an agent for American intelligence and had been in a Cuban prison for nearly 20 years. Additionally, in early January 2015, the Cuban government began releasing a number of imprisoned dissidents, as requested by the United States. On January 12, 2015, it was reported that all 53 dissidents had been released.
The prisoner swap marked the biggest shift in White House policy towards Cuba since the imposition of the embargo in 1962, and removed a key obstacle to bilateral relations. Since the exchange, Gross has become a vocal advocate of normalization of relations, even offering to visit Cuba again in support of such a result.
Easing of travel and trade restrictions
Although the Cuban trade embargo can only be ended by the U.S. Congress, the Obama administration took executive action to ease some restrictions on travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens, as well as restrictions on the import and export of goods between each country. In his 2015 State of the Union Address to Congress, Obama called on lawmakers to lift the embargo against Cuba, a message he reiterated in 2016.
In February 2015, Conan O'Brien became the first American television personality to film in Cuba in more than half a century (besides Michael Moore's Sicko in 2007 and Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations in 2011). In May 2015, the Minnesota Orchestra performed several concerts in Havana, the first professional U.S. orchestra to play in Cuba since 1999.
Major League Baseball (MLB) held talks about playing spring training games in Cuba in 2015, but lacked time to arrange them. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said on March 19, 2015, that the league would likely play an exhibition game in Cuba sometime in early 2016. On March 22, 2016, the Tampa Bay Rays played an exhibition game against the Cuban national team at Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana with Presidents Obama and Castro in attendance.
Sun Country Airlines began operating charter flights between New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and Havana's José Martí International Airport in March 2015. On May 5, 2015, the United States granted approval to four companies to offer chartered ferry service between Miami and Cuba. In March 2016, Carnival Cruise Line received permission from Cuba to resume cruises from Miami to Havana for the first time in fifty years. Cuba, however, still prohibited the Cuban-born from returning by sea, and Carnival therefore refused to accept reservations from the Cuban-born. Following public protests against such an exclusionary policy, Carnival told the Cuban authorities it would not sail unless the policy was changed, the Cuban government relented, and the first Carnival cruise sailed from Miami on May 1, 2016.
Between January and May 2015, the number of Americans visiting Cuba who had no family ties there was 36% higher than during the same months in 2014. A report by the Pew Research Center found that the number of Cubans entering the U.S. in 2015 was 78% higher than in 2014.
Normalization of relations
It has been said that the United States–Cuban Thaw was spurred by Cuba's main international partner, Venezuela, experiencing sharp economic decline. Venezuela subsidized the government of Cuba, however following the oil price drop resulting from the 2010s oil glut, could no longer do so. (see also Pink tide#Decline)
On January 21, 2015, the United States and Cuba began bilateral talks in Havana to discuss further normalization issues. The U.S. delegation led by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta S. Jacobson, and Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, Cuba's head of North American affairs, sat down for the first day of closed-door talks in the capital’s Convention Center. The talks reportedly centered around migration policy. In particular, Cuban representatives urged the U.S. to end its immigration privileges to Cuban refugees, also known as the Wet feet, dry feet policy, which allows any fleeing Cuban citizens U.S. residency and citizenship, as long as they are found on U.S. soil and not at sea. Reuters reported that civilian uncertainty about the status of U.S. immigration policy following the thaw was promoting a surge of emigrants fleeing Cuba for the U.S.
In regard to U.S. interests, the U.S. delegation made it clear that "improved human rights conditions, including freedom of expression and assembly", remain a central element of U.S. policy in normalizing U.S.–Cuban relations. Furthermore, despite Cuban objections, the U.S. stated that it will stand by its Cuban migration policy under the Cuban Adjustment Act.
A second round of talks took place in Washington, D.C., late in February 2015. Negotiators described the talks as productive and said several issues were close to resolution. However, the issue of Cuba's listing among state sponsors of terrorism by the U.S. government remained a significant sticking point, although Cuban diplomat Josefina Vidal said its removal was not strictly a precondition to reopening embassies.
A third round of talks were held in Havana from March 16–17, 2015. However, the talks ended abruptly after just a day, without any public comment. Obama and Castro themselves met at the Summit of the Americas in Panama on April 10–11, where Castro delivered an address praising Obama and apologising for blaming his government for the ongoing U.S. embargo. After meeting with Obama, Castro called for the reopening of the embassies, while both presidents said they were looking forward to more direct engagement between Cuba and the United States despite their differences.
"State sponsor of terrorism" designation
In addition to Cuba's concern over U.S. migration policy, the Cuban delegation assured the U.S. that normalization talks would not yield significant changes unless Cuba is removed from the U.S. State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism. Cuba was one of four countries on the list, the other three being Iran, Sudan, and Syria. The U.S. government said that it had begun an intelligence review in order to evaluate whether Cuba can be removed from the list.
On April 14, 2015, President Obama informed the U.S. Congress that he had decided to lift the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism because "the government of Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period", and it "has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future". The U.S. Congress could have blocked this by passing legislation within 45 days, but no member of Congress even introduced such legislation, and Cuba was officially removed from the list on May 29, 2015.
Cuban governmental bank account
Cuba and the United States officially resumed full diplomatic relations at midnight on July 20, 2015, with the "Cuban interests section" in Washington, D.C., and the "U.S. interests section" in Havana being upgraded to embassies. A ceremony was held at the Cuban Embassy to raise the flag of Cuba, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla holding a joint news conference afterward at which they emphasized both the step forward in bilateral relations and the remaining political differences between the Cuban and U.S. governments. Kerry flew to Cuba in late July for a ceremony at which the flag of the United States was raised over the US Embassy in Havana.
Guantanamo Bay controversy
On January 28, 2015, while attending a meeting of Latin American leaders in San José, Costa Rica, President Raúl Castro asserted that the United States should return the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base and lift the embargo on Cuba if relations were to be considered fully normalized.
The White House responded the next day, saying that it had no intention to return the base. White House spokesman Josh Earnest indicated any such move is out of the question. "The President does believe that the prison at Guantánamo Bay should be closed down, but the naval base is not something that we wish to be closed." This issue has yet to be resolved.
Economic initiatives by the United States government
The United States government has stated specific goals in improving trade with Cuba. Roberta Jacobson, an American diplomat, suggested bolstering Internet access and mobile phone service in Cuba to help its integration into the world economy. This has provided American telecommunication companies including Verizon and Sprint with a new market in Cuba. By July 20, 2016, US companies Airbnb and Netflix were operating in Cuba as well.
The United States seeks to increase revenue from tourism in Cuba by lifting traveling restrictions which can be used for purchase of American agricultural and manufacturing exports to Cuba. On March 20, 2016, Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide became the first US company to sign a deal with Cuba since the 1959 revolution and agreed to manage two Havana hotels which had formerly been owned by the Cuban government. The first of these hotels opened three months later on June 27.
Resumption of mail service and regular airline service
On December 11, 2015, the United States and Cuba agreed to restore postal service between the two countries for the first time since 1963. A week later, on December 17, 2015–the first anniversary of D17–an agreement was reached to re-establish regularly scheduled flights between the U.S. and Cuba for the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. The agreement, which allows for 110 flights a day, took effect on February 16, 2016. Mail service between the two countries resumed on March 17, 2016.
On July 7, 2016, it was announced that eight US airline companies had been given tentative approval to fly to airports in Cuba and that flights, which would be limited to educational trips, would begin as early as September. On August 31, 2016, JetBlue Airways Flight 387 became the first US commercial airline in more than 50 years to land a plane carrying US passengers at a Cuban airport when one of its planes took off from Fort Lauderdale, Florida and landed in Santa Clara, Cuba. More flights have since followed, and two planes from JetBlue and American Airlines also made history by landing in the capital city of Havana on November 28, 2016, marking the first time in more than 50 years that a US commercial flight landed in Cuba.
US presidential visit
President Obama arrived in Cuba for a three-day visit on March 20, 2016. Obama headed a delegation of between 800 and 1,200, including businesspeople and congressional leaders who had helped in establishing the 2014 normalization deal.
Obama was the first sitting U.S. president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. Obama said that he would only visit Cuba if he could meet with Cuban dissidents: "If I go on a visit, then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody. I’ve made it very clear in my conversations directly with President Raúl Castro that we would continue to reach out to those who want to broaden the scope for, you know, free expression inside of Cuba."
Travel by sea
On May 1, 2016, the MV Adonia, a cruise ship operated by Carnival subsidiary Fathom Travel, departed from Miami and docked in Havana Bay, marking the first time in nearly 40 years that a U.S. passenger ship sailed from the U.S. to Cuba. Carnival said that the Adonia would go from Miami to Havana every other week.
Two other Miami-based cruise lines, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian, are interested in running cruises to Cuba and are seeking Cuban government authorization. A number of Florida ferry companies have received authorization from the U.S. Department of the Treasury to begin service to Cuba, but the companies are waiting on Cuban government permission.
Domestic political responses
Raúl Castro, the Cuban president since 2008 and one of the leaders of the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s, declared in 2013 that "a slow and orderly transfer of the leadership of the revolution to the new generations" was already in progress. Castro has pledged not to seek reelection in 2018. In announcing the agreement in December 2014, Castro struck a balance between praising the Marxist revolution that brought him and his brother Fidel to power almost 60 years prior and extolling the benefits that would be brought about by improved relations with the United States, namely the end of the Cuban embargo.
Fidel Castro appeared to welcome the thaw between Cuba and the United States in a statement published by Granma on January 26, 2015. Despite saying that he "does not trust United States policies", he stated, "We will always defend cooperation and friendship with all the peoples of the world, among them our political adversaries."
In December 2014, Raúl Castro publicly thanked Pope Francis and the Catholic Church for their role in the secret talks that led to the U.S.–Cuban prisoner exchange. According to Church officials within Cuba, several plans to build Catholic churches, which have been blocked since the revolution in 1959, are being processed. The first church is to be built in Sandino. It will be the first Catholic church to be built in Cuba since 1959, when the communist Castro regime declared the country an atheist state.
At a CELAC meeting in 2015, Raúl Castro gave a speech claiming "Cuba will continue to defend the ideas for which our people have assumed the greatest sacrifices and risks." In that speech, he detailed the history of Cuba's foreign relations. Throughout the speech, he condemned the United States' history of manifest destiny, detailing a basic history of American and Cuban relations. After talking about the United States' policy in Cuba, he went on to condemn the United States' assistance in installing the "terrible dictatorships in 20 countries, 12 of them simultaneously," referring to the United States' supporting of Latin American dictatorships. Following that, Castro detailed Cuba's history following the Cuban Revolution. But despite his prior backlash against the United States, Castro summarized his speech by praising the recent improvements in American-Cuban relations, and wondered why "the countries of the two Americas, the North and the South, fight together against terrorism, drug trafficking and organized crime, without politically biased positions."
In the United States
The Cuban Thaw has received a mixed reception among politicians in the United States. Prominent critics include Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican, said that "diplomatic recognition [would] provide legitimacy to a government that doesn't deserve it." The 2014 congressional elections were a month prior to the announcement of the thaw.
Senator Bob Menendez, a Cuban-American Democrat from New Jersey and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was an early critic of Obama's decision to normalize relations with Cuba. Writing in USA Today on December 17, Menendez criticized Obama "for compromising on bedrock U.S. values", charging that the Obama administration "has wrongly rewarded a totalitarian regime and thrown the Cuban regime an economic lifeline". Among the few other Democrats who have criticized Obama over the shift in relations with Cuba are two members of the House of Representatives: Albio Sires and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.
Congressional opponents of the new Cuba policy vowed to try to block its implementation, with Rubio announcing he would hold up the confirmation of any U.S. ambassador to Cuba whom Obama might nominate. Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas described the policy as a "tragic mistake." However, the Associated Press reported that business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would likely apply pressure on congressmen to accept the diplomatic thaw, and Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a supporter of the shift, predicted many congressmen would come around.
Like Senator Flake, Senator Rand Paul, a Republican from Kentucky, supports the thaw on the grounds that increased trade relations will benefit both Cubans and Americans. Senator Paul, in response to Senator Rubio, argued that “Senator Rubio is acting like an isolationist”, and that, “The 50-year embargo just hasn't worked. If the goal is regime change, it sure doesn't seem to be working.”
Similarly, Obama's former Secretary of State and 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton strongly endorsed the decision. Clinton has argued that the embargo “had propped up the Castro government because they could blame all of the country’s problems on the United States. Moreover, the embargo did not have any impact on freedom of speech, freedom of expression, or on freeing political prisoners.”
Russia, one of Cuba's closest allies, encouraged Washington to go further by lifting the embargo and removing Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.
China, also one of Cuba's closest allies, welcomed the resumption of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States.
Israel was one of the few countries not to issue a statement welcoming the change, and it was reported that the Israeli Foreign Ministry is "miffed" at having been caught off guard by the change. Israel-Cuba relations have been icy since the 1960s, and Israel has been the only country to consistently side with the US against UN resolutions criticizing the embargo.
Several Latin American leaders publicly welcomed the thaw, with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro hailing Obama's move toward normalization as a "valiant and historically necessary gesture", despite being a regular critic of U.S. policy. Colombian Liberal ex-President Ernesto Samper in his capacity as President of UNASUR said that "this was very good news, not only for Cuba but for the entire region". Juan Carlos Varela, the conservative President of Panama, said that in the 7th Summit of the Americas to be held in his country after April 7, 2015, it will be possible to "achieve the dream of a united region".
The Canadian government, which maintained more positive relations with Cuba than the United States did during and after the Cold War, also responded favorably, with Foreign Minister John Baird suggesting to The Atlantic commentator Jeffrey Goldberg that the policy shift could help "transform" Cuba for the better.
Media sources, which were quick to dub the sudden turnaround in relations the "Cuban Thaw", have predicted that it will lead to a wide variety of social and economic benefits for the two countries, as well as some less obvious impacts. Newsweek reported that the stock market jumped once elements of the Cuban Thaw were reported. Reuters reported that the thaw would "make it more likely the Cuban government will extradite fugitives sought by U.S. officials." The Associated Press reported environmentalist concerns that the thaw would lead to the opening of "one of the most prolific oil and gas basins on the planet," which sits off the coast of Cuba. Bloomberg News reported that the thaw would even benefit Major League Baseball, with teams gaining major new opportunities to sign Cuban players. There were reports on how the Cuban Thaw affected Cuban society, including its real estate market and greater emphasis on English language education.
The New Republic deemed the Cuban Thaw to be "Obama's finest foreign policy achievement." The Indonesian journal Strategic Review proposed that Obama could follow the model of normalization of relations which his predecessor Bill Clinton had done with Vietnam.
Granma, Cuba's state newspaper, published numerous articles regarding the Cuban Thaw. It stated that "International public opinion supports removal of Cuba from U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism," and that "[t]he decision is recognized as an important step in advancing President Obama’s policy change to improve relations between the two countries." Additionally, they stated that "[t]he Cuban government recognizes the just decision taken by the President of the United States to eliminate Cuba from a list on which it never should have been included" and reiterated that Cuba "rejects and condemns all acts of terrorism in all their forms and manifestations, as well as any action that is intended to instigate, support, finance or conceal terrorist acts."
A survey conducted by Pew Research Center in January 2016 found that 63% of Americans approved of Obama's decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, while 28% disapproved. The study found that Democrats (74%) and Independents (67%) were more likely to support the re-established relations; 40% of Republicans approved. The study also found that 66% of Americans supported ending the trade embargo against Cuba, while 28% disapproved. Support for both the re-establishment of relations and the lifting of the trade embargo was seen broadly amongst all racial and ethnic groups (62% of whites, 64% of blacks, and 65% of Hispanics) and amongst all age-brackets, however younger Americans were more likely to support it than older Americans. Americans who were college or university graduates (77%) overwhelmingly supported the restoration of relations, while people with only some college education (59%) or only high school education (53%) were less likely to support it. Despite broad support for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the end of the trade embargo, only 32% of Americans surveyed believed that Cuba would become "more democratic" over the next several years, with 60% believing the situation in Cuba will remain the same.
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