History lessons from China for future relations with Cuba

Presidents Obama and Castro instigated rumors of a thaw when they shook hands for the first time at the memorial for Nelson Mandela in December last year. Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

This past December, Presidents Barack Obama and Raoúl Castro ended over fifty years of economic and political isolation between the US and Cuba with their shock announcement that they intend to re-establish diplomatic relations.

The event brought comparisons with the similarly unexpected rapprochement between the US and Communist China in 1972. President Nixon described his meeting with Chairman Mao as the “week that changed the world.” It was hailed as a diplomatic masterstroke, a Cold War turning point.

Richard Nixon goes to China.

But the world did not change in one week. Indeed the US-Chinese rapprochement was unexpectedly protracted: extending for seven years until December 1978. It was only then, after considerable negotiations, that the two countries finally agreed to formal diplomatic arrangements.

Now, as the dust settles after the initial announcement of US-Cuban normalization, and as a bitterly divided Congress weighs in on the wisdom of the thaw, it is looking increasingly likely that this, too, could be a long, slow reconciliation.

While the geopolitical contexts of China in the 1970s and Cuba today are very different, a comparison can nonetheless offer vital lessons for the unfolding US-Cuban rapprochement.

1. Temper expectations of political liberalization

The Sino-American experience cautions against the assumption that economic growth will necessarily provide an impetus for political change.

Referred to as modernization theory, this idea played an important role in American foreign policy during the Cold War.

As my PhD research examines, in the years following 1972 many of the American companies that began selling machinery and factories to China saw themselves as “businessmen-reformers” – a concept historian Jerry Israel coined regarding an earlier period of China trade.

The American businessmen trading with China during rapprochement envisaged trade as playing a vital role in modernizing Chinese society, bringing it out of the orbit of Soviet influence and closer to the capitalist democracy espoused by America. In the 1980s American excitement at prospects of China’s political modernization only grew, as the country’s leader Deng Xiaoping liberalized China’s economy.

But China’s history since rapprochement warns against the correlation between trade and political liberalization. Despite the huge changes in China’s economy since the 1970s, its political system has remained impervious to external influence. This was partly why the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 had such an emotional impact on the American public: it was seen as a violent interruption to China’s trajectory towards democracy.

During the Tiananmen protests, media reports drew frequent parallels with the collapse of communism and rise of democracy occurring in Eastern Europe. The fact that some of the protesters had established a statue modelled on New York’s Statue of Liberty became proof that all protesters were searching for American-style democracy.

But the horrific scenes of violence that unfolded on televisions across America and the world brought an end to seven weeks of protests with death rather than democracy.

After the violence, American public opinion on China went into complete reversal. A Gallup poll found that 78% of respondents had an unfavorable opinion of China: three months earlier 72% had seen China positively.

Now, it is hoped that with exposure to American goods the changes to the Cuban economy - including the development of a Cuban middle class - will in turn inspire people to push for democracy.

That is certainly what the President believes. In his initial announcement, Obama proclaimed that renewed contact was the best way to promote democracy and human rights in Cuba,

“I believe that we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement.”

And prominent American policymakers and business people published an open letter supporting Obama’s move saying,

“engagement will advance our national interests and our values by empowering the Cuban people’s capacity to work toward a more democratic and prosperous country.”

While economic ties have the potential to bring immense social and economic benefits to Cuba, linking it to Cuba’s political system can create unrealistic expectations in both the US and Cuba about the prospects and methods of social change.

The example of China shows how tenuous the connection is between trade and political liberalization.

For the time being at least, American public opinion remains tempered. A recent Pew Poll indicated that while 63% supported normalization with Cuba, only about one-third thought that Cuba would become more democratic in the next few years. The political rhetoric would do well to follow suit.

2. Disagreement can lead to inertia

The story of US-Chinese rapprochement also demonstrates that despite initial public excitement, inertia can be quick to set in.

In the case of China, there were significant disagreements that, over time, became difficult to resolve. America’s relationship with Taiwan was the biggest point of contention. And Chairman Mao’s death and the Watergate scandal further interrupted progress towards normalization. It took two changes in the American presidency and an altered political landscape in China before momentum was regained.

America’s negotiations with Cuba, too, look to be mired in delays that could very easily reach a point of stalemate.

One of the biggest hurdles to normalization is lifting the American trade embargo. If it is not lifted, President Castro declared that normalization would be “meaningless.”

Castro has provided further preconditions to diplomatic ties, calling for America to end its occupation of Guantanamo Bay and provide compensation for the “human and economic damage” Cubans suffered as a consequence of American policies. The White House rejected the latter two demands outright, but the embargo remains the sticking point.

Yet control of the embargo is out of Obama’s hands.

The 1996 Helms-Burton Act made lifting economic sanctions against Cuba conditional on Congressional approval. While Obama may have Republican Senator Jeff Flake from Arizona on side, Flake is only one of seven Republicans who support Obama’s normalization with Cuba.

Even more troubling is the vehement opposition from prominent Cuban-Americans on both sides of the aisle.

The potential Republican Presidential candidate Marco Rubio and the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Robert Menendez, are opposed to anything that could be construed as softening America’s stance against the communist regime.

If negotiations to lift the economic embargo do not succeed this year – and it’s looking increasingly unlikely that they will – then the presidential election campaigns of next year will further stall progress. Any diplomacy will be put on the backburner until the new president moves into the Oval Office. And if the next President is a Republican, the process may well take even longer.

Unless Obama manages to find a way to negotiate Congressional approval soon, progress towards normalization with Cuba will stall as it did with China in the 1970s.

Learning from history

The power of surprise cannot be dismissed. Both moments of diplomatic breakthrough - with China in 1972 and with Cuba in 2014 - attest to the political impetus it can inspire.

However, the history of the US-Chinese rapprochement also reveals that diplomacy has its limits: momentum can easily dissipate and lead to inertia. Moreover it shows the fragility and even futility of the assumption that political change will necessarily follow from economic contact.

It takes more than a week to change the world.

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