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Cuba-U.S. relations: Advances and setbacks

bandera americanaOn December 17, 2014, the Presidents of Cuba and the United States, Raúl Castro Ruz and Barack Obama, simultaneously announced that diplomatic relations between the two countries would be reestablished and they would advance toward the normalization of bilateral ties. The return to Cuba of the three Cuban heroes, Gerardo, Ramón and Antonio, who remained unjustly imprisoned in U.S. prisons after 16 years, was also announced.

Both leaders acknowledged that the process toward normalization would be long, complex and difficult, but not impossible to achieve. The two countries assumed the challenge of this new stage, after several decades of intense confrontation. The position was the same proclaimed since 1959 by the Comandante en Jefe of the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro Ruz: our principles are not up for debate, much less negotiation, but solutions to problems can be found, and we can identify issues of common interest, under conditions of equality and mutual respect.


The blockade was maintained, and the repeated calls by President Barack Obama on Congress to lift it were of no effect. Neither did the U.S. President use his executive powers to the maximum to advance in its dismantling. Nonetheless, Obama approved five packages of measures to modify some aspects of the blockade’s implementation, which, although limited and insufficient, were positive steps that made it possible to reach the first commercial agreements in more than five decades. Spaces for dialogue and cooperation were created, which showed that despite the profound differences on several issues, solutions could be found, and a climate of “civilized coexistence” created, as has been reiterated several times by Army General Raúl Castro Ruz.

On January 20, 2017, Obama’s term in office concluded. In just two years he helped to improve relations with Cuba and recognized the Cuban government as a legitimate interlocutor. However, he maintained the geopolitical projection of the United States over Cuba without any essential changes, albeit with a more subtle approach and in correspondence with the so-called “smart power” strategy of his administration’s foreign policy.


- Removal of Cuba from the unilateral list of state sponsors of terrorism.

- Reestablishment of diplomatic relations and the reopening of respective embassies.

- Creation of the Bilateral Commission, as a political mechanism to find solutions to problems that affect ties, and promote bilateral cooperation in areas of mutual benefit.

- Creation of the mechanism for dialogue in the area of Law Enforcement, with the objective of advancing cooperation in confronting transnational issues that affect the national security of both countries; and the establishment of eight technical working groups on confronting Terrorism, Drug Trafficking, Cybersecurity and Cybercrimes, Travel and Trade Security, Trafficking in Persons and Migration Fraud, Money Laundering and Financial Crimes, People Smuggling, and Judicial Assistance in Criminal Matters.

- Establishment of the Bilateral Economic Dialogue and of four technical working groups on Regulatory issues, Energy and Investments, Trade and Cooperation, and Industrial Property.

- Signing of the Joint Declaration to ensure regular, safe and orderly migration, which signalled the elimination of the so-called “wet foot-dry foot” policy and the parole program for Cuban medical professionals.

- Resumption of direct mail services, the reestablishment of regular flights by U.S. airlines, and the start of cruise operations between the U.S. and Cuba. Agreements regarding telecommunications services, and contracts with a U.S. company for the management of two hotels in Havana.

- Holding of 41 technical meetings between experts in areas such as: aviation and airport security; maritime and port security; law enforcement; combating drug trafficking, human trafficking and migration fraud; cybersecurity; money laundering; terrorism; health; agriculture; environment; hydrographic surveys and nautical charts, among others. During 2016, more than 1,200 cultural, scientific, academic and sports exchanges took place between the two countries.

- Increase in travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba. More than 284,000 Americans visited the island during 2016, representing 74% growth compared to the previous year. That same year, 229 business delegations visited the country and 23 commercial agreements were reached. Relations with 25 business associations were maintained, especially with the United States Chamber of Commerce.

- Signing of 22 bilateral cooperation instruments, covering areas such as health, agriculture, environmental protection and law enforcement.


The favorable scenario created after December 17, 2014, coincided with the presidential race in the United States. Of the 17 candidates for the Republican Party, only two recognized the reestablishment of their country’s relations with the island. One of them was Donald Trump, although he specified his intention to achieve a “better deal” with the Cuban government. In addition, he went on to say that he would consider opening one of his hotels in Cuba, and that the Caribbean nation had certain “potential” for investors.

That position changed for the sake of political expediency at the end of the campaign, when Trump established an alliance with the U.S. based extreme anti-Cuban right, to benefit from their electoral and political machinery in South Florida. From that moment on, the then presidential candidate moved to the other extreme and upped his offensive discourse against the Cuban Revolution and its historic leaders.

He has maintained this position since entering the White House. On June 16, 2017, he announced in Miami his administration’s policy toward Cuba, which reversed part of the progress made in the last two years. In what was a significant setback in relations between the two countries, President Donald Trump delivered an anti-Cuban speech reminiscent of the Cold War era, full by threats, lies, incoherence and false accusations In addition, he signed an interventionist and offensive memorandum against the island, which repealed that signed by Obama.

This anti-Cuban political environment attempted to curb the interest that U.S. companies had been showing in the Cuban market since 2014, and intended to affect the visits by U.S. citizens to the island. However, this flow of visitors did not cease, but in fact increased. Up to November 2017, some 579,288 Americans had traveled to Cuba, representing 248.7% growth compared to the same period the previous year.

This year also saw U.S. government allegations regarding “sonic attacks” against its diplomats in Havana, which apparently caused health problems. Without waiting for the results of the ongoing investigations or determining the causes of the alleged incidents, the U.S. government politicized the situation adopting measures that had negative consequences for the normal development of bilateral ties.

Among those with the greatest impact were the expelling of Cuban diplomats from the U.S., the dismantling of the Economic-Commercial Office of the Cuban Embassy in Washington, and the reduction in the number of U.S. officials in its Embassy in Havana, which resulted in the suspension of the processing of visas for Cuban travelers and emigrants to the U.S. Cultural, sports and student events to be held between the two countries were also canceled, affecting the positive bilateral exchange up until then.

In this context, on November 9, 2017, the United States government put into effect the specific regulations to implement the blockade measures contained in the National Security Presidential Memorandum on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba, that Trump had signed in Miami, imposing new restrictions on travel and trade, signaling a tightening of the blockade and confirming the deterioration of bilateral relations.

This course of action responds to the demands of a small section of the anti-Cuban extreme right, led by Senator Marco Rubio, who publicly pressures the Executive to adopt more radical measures against Cuba, including the rupture of diplomatic relations and the closing of embassies. However, this group has not been able to reverse all the progress achieved since 2014, thanks to the support of broad sectors of U.S. society, that reject the positions of confrontation and advocate continuing the improvement in bilateral ties.

A diehard, minority sector in the U.S. cannot stomach the fact that the majority of Americans who travel to the neighboring country witness the joy of Cubans, their customs, culture, values, and enjoy the safe and peaceful atmosphere that reigns in its streets and cities. They are concerned that U.S. citizens return to their homes with greater respect regarding Cuba’s history, and a better understanding of the effects of the blockade on the daily lives of this humble and hard-working people.

Beyond relations with the United States, Cuba continues to build a sovereign, independent, socialist, democratic, prosperous and sustainable nation. As Cuban President Raúl Castro Ruz affirmed in July this year, during his speech at the closing of the 9th period of ordinary sessions of the National Assembly of People’s Power 8th legislature, “Despite what the government of the United States does, or does not decide to do, we will continue advancing along the path sovereignly chosen by our people.”


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