Obama’s Cuba move is more a milestone than a turning point

The star-spangled banner yet waves over a Havana taxi-bike. EPA/Alejandro Ernesto

The recent news that the United States and Cuba are finally beginning to “normalise” relations has understandably caught the world’s imagination, given the two countries’ longstanding mutual hostility. However, it may not be quite as significant as it seems.

Our astonishment partly arises from the belief, reiterated by Obama, that Cuba’s isolation dates from 1961, when relations were broken. In fact, the reality - overlooked by all (including Obama) - is that those relations were partly mended in 1977, when the then US president, Jimmy Carter, agreed with Cuba a partial mutual recognition agreement, establishing “Interest Sections” in each other’s capitals as a first step to full normalisation.

That project was scuppered by the rise of Reaganism, which viewed Cuba as the root cause of violent leftist rebellion in Central America. Nonetheless, this means that the two countries have actually had diplomatic relations of a sort since then, with the US Interest Section being Havana’s second-largest diplomatic edifice and its head the acknowledged leader of the Havana diplomatic corps.

Therefore, the December 17 moves simply complete Carter’s work, upgrading the existing quasi-embassy into a full embassy under an ambassador. This is just another milestone, albeit a significant one, on the long road to normalisation.

The crucial point about US-Cuban relations is therefore not recognition per se, but the economic embargo, about which Obama can actually do very little.

Chipping away

Indeed, all that Obama has done since 2008 is to undo some of the tightening visited on the embargo after years of slow and almost invisible dismantling.

In 1996, the Helms-Burton Act (which a reluctant Bill Clinton signed under Cuban-American pressure) gave the embargo the force of a treaty, which only a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress can change – and also prohibited any change while a Castro is in power in Cuba.

Since Raúl Castro has confirmed that he will stand down in 2018, at the end of his second term, this means that nothing can happen on the embargo until then unless the law is changed. From January 2015, the Republicans will control both chambers of the US Congress – and that no doubt concentrated Obama’s mind and hastened his move to rapprochement.

The embargo is of course the largest problem that besets US-Cuban relations and also Cubans’ daily lives. For all that Cuban discourse tends to blame it for everything in the country’s politics, the reality is that it clearly makes the greatest difference to ordinary Cubans, affecting their income, prices and availability of goods and even access to the internet.

High hopes. EPA/Alejandro Ernesto

On that note, two of the changes Obama announced were particularly big news: toleration of commercial transactions in telecommunications (which includes the import of computers and Cuban access to broadband) and permission to US banks to back the credit and debit cards of US citizens visiting Cuba – since they, along with non-US tourists whose cards are backed by US banks, are unable to use their cards on the island.

This measure will encourage more US commercial operators and representatives to travel to Cuba (although still prohibiting US tourists under the embargo), giving them a foothold which they have so far been denied by their own government.

Soon-to-be-lame duck

On balance, therefore, the new moves are more of a milestone than a turning point. They are also the result of a US president, keen to make a difference on Cuba before his hands are tied even further from January 2015 when the Republicans control both houses of Congress and then, later, when in his last year of office, he becomes a classic “lame-duck” president, using the few means available to him without reference to Congress.

Hence, he was able to upgrade (not, as he suggested and as most observers have assumed, initiate) mutual relations with Cuba.

In this respect, he has simply continued his strategy of dismantling many of the measures put in place by the Bush Administration, which was politically indebted to the Florida-based Cuban-American lobby. He has desisted from enforcing certain aspects of the enhanced embargo, while still punishing foreign banks for trading in Cuba.

Yes, it is all of some significance, since it will perhaps increase the pressure from US commercial interests on the US Congress to eventually change the embargo. But, as ever on Cuba, the message must still be: don’t hold your breath.