¿Qué pasa, Cuba?

Cuba is more accessible to the average American than it has been in half a century. Over the past 2 years, US relations with Cuba have changed drastically, and it’s easy to miss the day-to-day shifts in policy and practice between our two nations. However, with President Obama announcing just this past week that commercial US flights will fly to Havana once again [1], and restrictions on US businesses operating in Cuba have loosened. I’ll be talking timelines, terminology, and tradition, all in the hope that you’ll be interested enough to learn more and keep an open mind on a fascinating nation that’s divided America’s population for decades.

(Note: this post will focus on what happened between Cuba and the US from Cuba’s pre-revolutionary period leading up to today. It won’t be a complete overview, since that would take years and can be had with more nuance with policy experts and historians. We figured this would be a good first step for our readers, who are largely US-based. But if you have a specific question about Cuba that we don’t answer here, tweet us @theopticblog!)

The key issue that we’ll be discussing in this article is the embargo that was placed on Cuba by the United States in 1962. Officially, an embargo is defined as an order that restricts some form of trade with another nation [15]. Though this can happen for a number of reasons, in this case, it happened largely because of tensions between the United States and Cuba as the political and economic goals of the Soviet Union loomed over them. This article goes through the events and conflicts that lead up to and happened as a result of this relationship, as well as what could potentially happen as a world with a Soviet Union falls further and further into the past.

Why are we talking about Cuba?

Just this Thursday, President Obama announced that he would likely visit Cuba before the end of his presidency, potentially as soon as within the next month [2]. The countries have had a tense relationship over the years — from Cuba’s early communism to continued tensions through the end of the Cold War, the American and Cuban leaders don’t have a history of visiting each other. Obama would be the first sitting US president to do so in about 80 years. However, Obama’s announcement was not out of the blue. Over the past few years, he’s been talking with Cuban leader Raul Castro to ease tensions and strengthen diplomatic and economic relations between their two nations. This is the first attempt to do so since the early years of Bill Clinton’s presidency in the mid-1990’s. Policy changes that Obama has advanced so far include a re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two nations and a loosening of restrictions for US businesses setting up shop in Cuba (for a more complete list, see source 3).

In the context of US-Cuban relations over the past century, these changes were relatively shocking to the international community, and they continue to receive intense backlash from pro-embargo groups and several current US presidential candidates. Marco Rubio, for instance, considers a scaling back of the embargo to be continuing the “long record of coddling dictators and tyrants that this (Obama) administration has established” [4]. Rubio highlights two very common arguments for upholding the embargo — that lifting it would make America look weak in the face of ideological challenges from other nations, and that lifting it would essentially mean that the US supports Cuba’s human rights abuses. Though the first argument has less to do with diplomacy and more to do with image, the second raises a legitimate question: at what point does trading with a nation constitute support for the behavior of the nation’s government towards its citizens? The answer to this question will be different for every person, which is part of why it’s so difficult to pin down.

Each person also has a different view of America’s role on the world stage, another question that plays a role in this conversation. The United Nations has condemned the embargo since the early 1990’s, and this is part of the evidence that Obama has used over the past few years to convince the American people and members of Congress that the embargo should be lifted [5]. Many in Congress are upset that Obama is trying to use the UN vote to pressure them to lift the embargo, which has decreased the probability of its being lifted under the current Congress even further.

And that brings us to the question that underlies everything I’ve just mentioned: why can’t Obama just lift the embargo himself? Is that a right that the president has?

To answer these questions, I’m going to go back to the beginning. I told you that I would explain the embargo in greater depth, and in order to do so, I’ll need to start by explaining a little bit about the events in Cuba that lead to it.

Events to the Embargo

In the early 20th century, Cuba became independent from Spain. After this point, President Gerardo Machado led the nation. During Machado’s presidency, Cuba was the playground for the American elite — celebrities would travel there to get a taste of beachy paradise and experience Cuban dance and food. At the same time, there was unrest brewing on the countryside. Enormous disparities in income that were often divided on racial lines (to read more about the racial struggles in Cuba, go to source 11) were prevalent in the nation, and the Cuban political system was corrupt. Machado was ousted in 1933 after a violent coup, and dictator Fulgencio Batista took power, at which point a constitution was implemented. However, there was still widespread corruption in the government. In the early to mid 1950’s, Cubans from every walk of life stood in solidarity against Batista, and after a brief revolutionary period, Fidel Castro took power (read source 6, an excellent timeline from PBS, for a more in-depth timeline of the events that lead to Castro’s taking power) [6].

This was a major turning point in Cuban society, even more major than the previous changes in leadership had been. In the beginning, Castro promised democracy. He said that, once the revolution had been finished, no one in the military could have political power. However, this promise was quickly rescinded once he realized that not everyone in a democratic society would agree with his policies. These tensions came to a head in 1959, when a military governor that Castro appointed — Huber Matos — was declared a traitor after his resignation and anti-Castro speech. Waves of Cubans began fleeing to Miami, and the majority of them have not returned since. Soon after Matos was taken to trial, the Castro government declared communism as its dominant political ideology.

“Cuba Sí, Yanquis No”

But that’s only what was happening in Cuba — in the United States, people were getting scared. We were already scared of the Soviets, and the fact that Cuba was joining them was a potential disaster, given our physical proximity and previous relationship. “Cuba sí, Yanquis no” was a song written by Cuban lawyer and songwriter Alejandro Gomez Roa and performed at a pro-Soviet, anti-American rally in 1960, at Castro’s request [13]. The American government, represented here by the CIA, attempted to oust Castro in April of 1961 via the now-infamous Bay of Pigs Invasion. The plan was to train Cuban exiles to fight against Cuba and destroy Castro’s planes. Though Castro knew about this and had already moved his planes, it was too late for the US forces to stop. Needless to say, the invasion failed, and the US was humiliated [7].

In October of that year, intelligence officers for President Kennedy discovered that Cuba and the Soviet Union were building missiles on the island that were pointed at the United States. President Kennedy responded to the missiles in two ways: first, by creating a naval blockade between Florida and Cuba, and second, by promising to remove missiles from Turkey and not invade Cuba in exchange for the Soviet Union removing their missiles from the island. All in all, the standoff lasted 13 days, and tensions were running high between the US and the Soviet Union [8].

Several Presidents removed and reinstated the embargo over their terms [9]. At this point, then, you may be wondering how exactly it was that all of these Presidents were able to lift and reinstate the embargo without Congressional approval, which is the case today. This is where an interesting development in the mid-1990’s comes in, and this development brought with it the most significant barrier to lifting the embargo that the world had ever seen.

In the mid-1990’s, there was an organization known as Brothers to the Rescue, or BTTR. In the beginning, their aim was to fly over Cuban waters and see if there were refugees who needed helping. By 1995, however, their intentions became more inflammatory — their planes often dropped anti-Castro flyers or bumper stickers over Cuba. By early 1996, the Castro government was done with BTTR flying in their airspace. They warned the United States (who, in turn, warned BTTR) that there would be action taken against the group if their airspace was violated again. Long story short, the planes were shot down, and Clinton moved against Cuba in retaliation [10].

The retaliation came in the form of a piece of legislation speeding through to presidential approval: the now infamous Helms-Burton Act (tidbit for my fellow Hoosiers: the bill was co-sponsored by our very own Dan Burton [12]).

The act basically said that the embargo against Cuba could not be lifted solely by the president, but that a Congressional vote was now required. The specific words of the act focused on strengthening the embargo and decreasing Cuba’s ability to become involved with many international diplomatic and financial institutions. Other requirements include Congressional approval of a Cuban government transitioning away from Castro, and a requirement for countries trading with the US to state that their products did not include any Cuban raw goods [14].

Into the 21st Century

By the time Obama became president, the Helms-Burton Act hadn’t changed since it was enacted in 1996. However, in mid-2015, Obama made a historic announcement: diplomatic relations with Cuba would be restored. Though this lead to the historic step of re-creating embassies between the nations; this did not lift the embargo. Because of the Helms-Burton Act, the embargo will still have to be lifted through Congressional vote. In the past year, Obama has taken many steps to weaken the Act. Like I said before, he would be the first sitting president in 80 years to make a visit to Cuba. The embargo is closer to being lifted than it has been in a long time.

The impacts of actually lifting the embargo are a completely different point of debate. With over 90% of Cuba’s economy still under government control, it’s tough to say that there would be enormous economic gain for either of our two nations. However, sitting Cuban leader Raul Castro said that he would step down in 2018, potentially allowing his vice-president to assume power. Whether this would lead to a transition to capitalism is up for debate, but regardless, it would be a major shift. For the first time since the mid-20th century, a Castro brother would no longer be in power. Some US policymakers are hopeful that this will lead to a complete overhaul of the Cuban government and economy, and others believe that it will allow the new leader to revert to a stronger Castro-like regime under a different name. Whatever Cuba does or doesn’t do in the coming months and years, the US has hopefully learned that what it doesn’t do to is strong-arm a nation into change.

















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