December 2014 Best in Governance
Isolation is not working. In the 55 years since the Cuban Revolution, relations between the United States and Cuba have remained frozen in time, much like the 1950s-era vintage cars that still sputter around the streets of Havana. Despite the fact that the two countries are separated by a mere 90 miles across the Straits of Florida, their relationship has long been defined by suspicion, sanctions, and espionage.
But last month American President Barack Obama and Cuban Raul Castro broke the stalemate with some help from Pope Francis, a stunning agreement that offers hope that the longtime adversaries might finally change the tenor of their often-hostile relationship. On December 17, Obama announced that the U.S. would normalize relations with Cuba and ease travel restrictions that have (officially at least) made contact between two countries difficult. The rapprochement comes after 18 months of sub-rosa negotiations, aided by the pope, who helped broker a complicated prisoner swap that made the announcement possible.
The U.S. embargo of Cuba dates back to 1960, one year before Obama was born. Implemented at the height of the cold war, the resulting estrangement from Cuba seems more like an antiquated relic of a bygone era rather than an effective diplomatic instrument. Virtually all other countries in the world trade with the island country, and Fidel Castro and now his brother Raúl remain in power. Rather than drive them from power, many argue that the embargo has only strengthened the Castros’ grip on power and had an impoverishing effect on ordinary Cuban citizens. Of course, the regime has a dismal human-rights record that includes the continued imprisonment of dissidents and harsh crackdowns on free speech. But after years of estrangement and foolish schemes, it may be time to try negotiation as a way to exert influence, a strategy that has seen some success in dealing with repressive states like Myanmar.
On the heels of executive actions on climate change and immigration, Obama has already faced stiff opposition to his diplomatic efforts from Republican politicians and members of Miami’s revanchist exile groups. Despite the fact that economic sanctions have largely proven ineffective, Obama will face an uphill battle to convince Congress to end the embargo that prevents American businesses from trading with Cuba. However, Obama has taken a bold step to cast off a failed policy and reset relations that have long since ceased to be more than saber-rattling. After years of following the archaic politics of the cold war, it’s time to try the politics of engagement.