For the vast majority of the 20th century, the United States has had a ‘special’ relationship with the island nation of Cuba. From the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 to the middle of the century, America’s influence over its de facto protectorate tied the countries closely together, with famous Cuban rum and cigars flowing freely north to the United States, and tourists arriving in droves in Havana and elsewhere. However, in 1959, the midst of the Cold War, a popular communist revolution led by the guerilla leader Fidel Castro brought down the American backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, and dramatically shifted the relationship between the two nations. Establishing a one-party republic that allied itself closely to the Soviet Union, Cuba served as the greatest thorn in the United States’ side during the Cold War.
Even today, with the Soviet Union a distant memory to many, Cuba remains as one of the few one-party communist nations, with a government led by Prime Minister and President Raul Castro, who succeeded his brother Fidel as the latter became too infirm to lead. Raul Castro is still very much a conservative communist, and has not made many attempts to politically reform Cuba. However, he is much more pragmatic than his idealistic brother, and has noted the shortcomings of his nation and the potential benefits that could be provided by burying the hatchet with the massive superpower located only a hundred miles to the north.
He could not have picked a better president to approach with propositions of reconciliation. Throughout his presidency, Mr. Obama has expressed his interest in the normalization of political and economic relations with the Cuban government. He has met with Mr. Castro several times on the subject, but there exist several major barriers standing between the two old rivals. Though Mr. Obama has been open to the stabilization of relations, the Republican Congress is opposes any shift from the status quo, especially Congressional members with ties to the powerful Cuban expatriate lobbies that operate in many states located along the Gulf of Mexico. They are not the only ones opposed to many aspects of the Cuban government. Mr. Obama, among others, has expressed his concerns over the lack of human rights in the country, along with a political system that actively stifles opposition and whose constitution contains laws specifically targeting dissidents, rather than protecting them. Also against normalization stand the more conservative elements of the island nation, aging generals and party-members who feel the integrity of their communist republic is threatened by a thaw with the United States.
Regardless of the disagreements between any of the factions surrounding the shifting policy of the neighbor countries, steps have been made, spearheaded by Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro. Diplomatic relations have been normalized, and embassies have reopened in both capitals. The UN has voted annually on a resolution that called for an end to the American embargo against Cuba since 1992. This last year, the United States abstained from voting, allowing the resolution to pass with the support of 191 countries. However, this doesn’t change the fact that the embargo remains, with the Republican Congress set to keep it that way.
Though some progress has been made, the future does not look promising. Raul Castro and his regime have not made any great strides in the fields of basic rights since the United States reestablished diplomatic ties, and in the last Communist Party Congress more conservative figures were given high positions in the government, while younger, more reform minded politicians have been snubbed. The president elect of the United States, Donald Trump, has vowed to roll back any progress Mr. Obama may have made. It seems that the hatchet wasn’t buried very deep.