A look back at four years of progress

Photo © Getty Images

Four years ago today, President Obama announced the most significant changes in U.S.-Cuba policy in more than 50 years. The move ended a decades-long containment policy that had failed to advance American interests and instead looked to normalize our bilateral relationship through cultural exchange and trade.

“Neither the American, nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born,” President Obama announced. “I believe that we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement.”

He was right. The announcement kicked off unprecedented growth in U.S.-Cuba relations. Despite President Trump’s efforts to undo Obama-era engagement policies, the comparative progress is undeniable:

1. An open channel for diplomatic engagement

On December 17, 2014, President Obama and Raul Castro announced that they would work to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba for the first time in more than half a century. Embassies reopened the following year and initiated dialogue in areas of mutual interest, such as environmental protection, migration, global health, and combating drug and human trafficking. These joint efforts have successfully reduced narcotics trafficking and unlawful Cuban migration to virtually zero.

2. The return of commercial travel between the U.S. and Cuba

Part of the U.S. opening toward Cuba made it easier for Americans to travel to the island by adding new categories of authorized travel. Under the new rules, the number of non-Cuban American U.S. travelers experiencing Cuba first-hand skyrocketed from 90,000 in 2014 to nearly half a million this year.

3. U.S. business takes hold in Cuba

The relaxed rules on travel and banking also made it possible for U.S. businesses to enter the Cuban market for the first time. Five commercial U.S. airlines and several major U.S. cruise lines now offer direct service to Cuba, and hospitality companies such as Starwood, Marriott, and Airbnb struck historic deals. In 2017, Fast and Furious 8: Fate of the Furious became the first Hollywood film shot in Cuba since the embargo. Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint have also enabled U.S. travelers to use international roaming in Cuba.

4. The growth of Cuba’s private sector

One of the most immediate and measurable gains from improving U.S.-Cuba relations has been the effect on Cuba’s nascent private sector, where as many as 4 in 10 Cuban workers now earn at least part of their income. President Obama removed limits on the amount of money that can be sent to Cuba from the United States, helping many Cubans mount businesses on the island. Cuba’s nearly 600,000 small business owners and workers directly benefit from big-tipping American visitors who tend to patronize small businesses in cultural hubs rather than the state-run beach resorts frequented by their Canadian and European counterparts.

5. Life-saving joint pharmaceutical research

Engaging with Cuba has not only allowed for greater diplomatic and national security collaboration, but has also allowed both countries to work together on scientific and medical advancements. Notably, the New York-based Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center and Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology launched the first ever biotech joint venture between the United States and Cuba earlier this year to develop innovative cancer treatments. A Cuban lung cancer drug, CIMAvax-EGF, recently finished a Phase I clinical trial in Buffalo.

6. The rapid expansion of Cuban internet access

Following negotiations with the United States, Cuba rapidly expanded internet access. Beginning in 2015, Cuba has launched hundreds of public Wi-Fi hotspots across the island. Earlier this month, Cuba’s state-run telecommunications company rolled out 3G data plans, making the internet accessible across the entire island for the first time ever. The Cuban government has also begun offering home access to broadband in some areas.

The expansion of internet access in Cuba has been a priority for both the Obama and Trump administrations, and U.S. telecommunications companies are now able to export devices and services to Cuba. Furthermore, increased remittances and travel to Cuba by Americans help more everyday Cubans afford communications devices and internet service.

7. Helping America’s farmers by stocking Cuba’s shelves

When President Trump signs the 2018 farm bill into law, it will mark the first time in nearly 20 years that Congress puts a dent in the 56-year-old trade embargo on Cuba. The farm bill passed with a provision that will give U.S. farmers access to federal funding for market development activities in Cuba, paving the way for greater exports to Cuba of U.S. agricultural commodities like rice, wheat, and soy. Check out our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram later this week to see what lawmakers and the agriculture community have to say about this historic victory.