President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that the United States and Cuba will re-establish diplomatic and economic relations, ending a political stalemate that began more than half a century ago.

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Nation & World

U.S.-Cuba ties: In from the cold

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Relaxing decades of sanctions while encouraging trade will benefit both sides, analysts say

Following 18 months of secret talks facilitated by Pope Francis and the Canadian government, President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that the United States and Cuba will re-establish diplomatic and economic relations, ending a political stalemate that began more than half a century ago.

Under the agreement, the United States will open an embassy in Havana; many existing travel, trade, and banking restrictions imposed on American citizens and businesses will be loosened; and Secretary of State John Kerry will review Cuba’s presence on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Additionally, Obama said, two American prisoners in Cuba, contractor Alan Gross and an unidentified U.S. intelligence officer, were released in exchange for three Cuban spies who had been jailed in the United States since 2001.

In separate phone and email exchanges, the Gazette turned to two Harvard authorities on Cuba and American foreign policy to interpret the importance of the U.S. policy shift with the island nation, one of the last bastions of communist rule in the world, and where the agreement likely will lead, both economically and politically. The changes also have implications for Harvard.

Jorge Domínguez is co-chair of Harvard’s Cuban Studies Program, focusing on Cuba’s domestic and international politics and economics. He is also vice provost of international affairs at Harvard and the Antonio Madero Professor for the Study of Mexico at the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

Nicholas Burns is the Sultan of Oman Professor of the Practice of International Relations at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS). A former U.S. ambassador to NATO and Greece and a career Foreign Service officer, Burns is also director of the Future of Diplomacy Project at HKS. Here are their insights.

GAZETTE: What do you think of the policy changes that President Obama has announced, and do they go far enough?

BURNS: This is a smart, sensible, and farsighted decision by President Obama. And it was a long time coming, as we broke relations with Cuba more than 55 years ago.

It is in our interest to be able to communicate regularly with the Cuban government and people. Frankly, it will be the most effective way for us to press for change in Cuba, for greater freedom and, eventually, democracy, and to argue against the human rights violations of the Cuban government. So it is not a gift to the [ruling] Castro brothers, but a recognition by President Obama that engagement in this case is a more effective strategy than isolation. We’ve tried to freeze out Cuba since the Eisenhower administration, and it has not worked.

DOMINGUEZ: I think they’re very welcome changes. They address specifically some issues that required humanitarian attention on their own — the circumstances of Alan Gross, the fact that both the United States and Cuba had spies in each other’s prisons; those elements were addressed directly. There were some that were addressed symbolically, but it was good to hear the president of the United States and the president of Cuba in simultaneous press conferences refer to it, namely [that] they talked to each other for a good amount of time. They had met once at [South African leader Nelson] Mandela’s funeral, and they shook hands at the time in what was a cordial but brief exchange. But this was a substantive discussion where they were trying to sketch out the various circumstances to what the future might be. So, as a start, it’s a very good start.

For Harvard, it makes some of the work that we have been doing with enormous difficulty easier. For example, we have been sending Harvard College students to study abroad at the University of Havana each and every year now for several years, and they have a very good experience. We have not been able to open a bank account in Havana, so we have to send a staffer with cash … And now we will be able to deal with that more sensibly. Similarly, our students have to carry a great deal of personal cash because it had been illegal to use U.S. credit or debit cards in Cuba. Now the president has indicated that these cards will be lawfully used in Cuba, and Cuba will enact regulations to make that possible. So just in terms of our study-abroad program this is a big help.

Another example, we have been hosting for a number of years workshops and small conferences and working groups in Havana. And in order to do that, we have to request each time what is called a specific license from the U.S. government. We have gotten all of these specific licenses, but it is an enormous amount of work. It takes a great deal of time. We’ve had to incur outside counsel legal expenses, and the changed regulations indicate that this will now be much more straightforward, both in terms of time and in terms of money. Even for us, in this much smaller world, it’s a welcome change.

Given that there were a lot of things that could not be done in the relations between the U.S. and Cuba, the list of things that could be done is almost infinite. But certainly for the president to increase the amount of money that can be remitted to a Cuban is a welcome step. One of the topics that comes up briefly in the president’s speech is that he wants to encourage small business activity in Cuba. Remittances are one way for people in the United States to help finance some of the small startups. A fairly small sum of money in U.S. currency actually goes pretty far in Cuba, so that is one very practical, one very sensible approach.

Similarly, Cuban telecommunications, whether it’s telephones or access to the Internet and the like, is poorly developed. Cuba has one of the lowest rates of Internet penetration in the world. And for a country with its high level of education, it really is almost unthinkable how difficult access to the Internet is. So for the president to permit the export of U.S. equipment that would facilitate that, and for the U.S. to avoid blocking Cuban engagement with the Internet — so if there are any challenges they would be just self-imposed in Cuba — all of that is positive.

GAZETTE: How does the U.S. benefit from the agreement, and which changes are likely to have the greatest quality-of-life impact for Cuban citizens? And what’s the downside to all this?

DOMINGUEZ: One benefit for the United States is a fairly narrow trigger for the president’s announcement, namely two people, one named Alan Gross, another, not named, a U.S. intelligence agent who had been in Cuban prisons, the president said, for two decades.

More generally, take something much more mundane but also important: U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba. The U.S. is already the principal international supplier of Cuban agricultural products. Now the president’s regulations permit an expansion of those sales, making them easier, making it possible to use trade credits to finance the operation. That will be good for U.S. agricultural exporters, but it will also make it easier for ordinary Cubans to buy the food, which is an issue. So that works on both sides.

I don’t think there is any downside here. I think these are all very sensible steps on the U.S. side. On the Cuban side, President [Raul] Castro has said he wants to change circumstances in the Cuban economy. And this, in at least some respects, whether it’s telecommunications or agricultural products and the like, would facilitate economic activity. Ultimately, though, on both sides, there is a political bet. The political bet that President Obama sketches is that what he’s doing and all the changes that presumably he could still undertake in 2015 will open up the Cuban political system, which would make it more difficult for President Castro to govern as he has. On President Castro’s side, the bet is that these relations with the United States will make it easier for Cuba to operate because the U.S. will not be on its back every time Cuba acts internationally, which would make it easier for him to consolidate his government. Who wins this bet, we don’t know, but we’ll know sometime in the future.

BURNS: The U.S. benefits because we will have a much greater ability to understand all that is happening in Cuba today and in the future. We’ll be much smarter about political, economic, and social realities there. We will be present inside Cuba to defend in the media and in conversations with the government the values that we believe need greater attention by the authoritarian government: human freedom and human rights.

GAZETTE: Why now, and not decades ago, and what do you think prompted this move? Should we truly credit Pope Francis?

DOMINGUEZ: I think we can credit the Canadians. I think we can credit the pope. I think there are two near-term events. One is that the U.S. was the original sponsor but also a major promoter of what is called the summit of the Americas, which is when the heads of state for countries of the Americas have gotten together. Obama has attended two of these, and the next one has been scheduled for early next year in Panama. The U.S. in the past had successfully vetoed an invitation to Cuba to participate. It was the only country in the hemisphere not invited to this. The Panamanians on their own decided to invite Cuba, and so there was a deadline. The White House had to say would President Obama be going to the Summit in Panama, and, frankly, what would happen there once the president got there. So that, I think, gave a deadline.

I think the other deadline is the liberating effect of [the Democrats’] losing the houses of Congress. If you want to remain president of the United States, you might as well do something. You can issue a decree on immigration, you can change a half-century of U.S. policy toward Cuba, and that doesn’t look so bad. I think there’s the longstanding policy [of isolating Cuba]. I think Obama and his team long understood that these policies stopped making sense long ago. I think there is the international community being active. The Latin Americans, the Europeans have wanted the U.S. to change its policy toward Cuba for a long time. I do think the pope matters here. This guy has not been pope for all that long, and he happens to be from Argentina — he’s reasonably knowledgeable about circumstances in Cuba and the Cuban Catholic Church — so I would give the Vatican and this pope in particular some real credit over the last 18 months.

BURNS: As you know, Cuba was the focal point of some of the most dramatic events of the Cold War: the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis. My earliest memory of a significant international event was the Cuban Missile Crisis. I was 6 years old and am now 58 — that provides a sense of just how long we have been estranged from the Cuban people. The legacy of bitterness produced by those events and the objectionable anti-democratic behavior of the Castro regime became powerful forces in American politics. Quite rightfully, the Cuban-American community argued for American opposition to the worst excesses of Fidel Castro.

But five decades have now passed, and the idea that by isolating Cuba in our hemisphere we would drive the communist regime from power was not successful. It required perhaps a younger president who had no professional leadership experience during the Cold War to see this clearly and to resolve now to adopt a different course. I admire President Obama’s courage in making this very tough call, but one that is surely right for our future. The press is reporting that both the Canadian government and his holiness, Pope Francis, served as intermediaries for the Cuba-U.S. talks that produced today’s announcement. They certainly deserve our thanks.

GAZETTE: Obama has asked Secretary of State John Kerry to review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. What does this involve, and how difficult and important is this piece to the normalization effort?

DOMINGUEZ: I think the “sponsor of terrorism” category has been seriously an impediment for quite some time. Moreover, in a number of important ways, it’s been just really inaccurate. As one example, the Cuban government, jointly with the government of Norway, has been brokering a very difficult, slow-moving, but ultimately I hope successful peace agreement between the Colombian government on the one hand and guerilla insurgencies in Colombia. This guerilla insurgency has been going on since the 1960s. This is a very constructive role for Cuba, and to label it as a state sponsor of terrorism [now] is crazy.

The president has instructed the secretary of state with the intent that the president knows what the outcome should be. And so, we’ll see. There is no problem in having these decisions reviewed on a regular basis. That’s fine. I mean if the Cuban government in fact were to be supporting terrorist acts somewhere else, and there would be reasonable evidence that it is doing so, then it belongs back on the list. It is true that Cuba supported a variety of insurgencies for a very long period of time, but it stopped doing so quite a while ago.

GAZETTE: U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida criticized lifting the embargo, and predicted that any policy shift on Cuba would face strong Republican opposition in Congress. House Speaker John Boehner called it a “mindless” concession that will embolden other state sponsors of terrorism. What’s the likelihood that this effort moves forward?

DOMINGUEZ: There’s a significant minority of Republicans in Congress who, over a long period of time, have wanted to change policy toward Cuba. A symbol of that is that three members of Congress traveled to Cuba to bring Alan Gross back to the United States, and one of them is Senator [Jeff] Flake, a Republican from Arizona. Now, how many others in the Republican caucus in the Senate and in the House agree with Senator Flake, I do not know. But I know that when Congress in the past has tested Cuba policy, dozens of Republicans have signaled at various times that they’d like a change in policy. Now, would the Republican caucus impose party discipline to try and prevent something like that? Hard to know. The president however, has full authority under what is colloquially known as the Helms-Burton Act to do what he has done.

The United States has diplomatic relations with a wide variety of governments, and has had diplomatic relations with a wide variety of governments with which it strongly disagrees. We are imposing increasing sanctions on the Russian federation; we’re not breaking diplomatic relations. You can have an embassy play a role of being an active and public critic of the incumbent government, as the U.S. embassy is in Moscow, as the U.S. embassy will be in Havana.

BURNS: Given the furious criticism by Republicans of the President’s decision, we can expect Cuba to become a 2016 campaign issue — not surprising as it has been a political football for decades. But I would hope that a serious and rational national conversation would produce the realization that talking to the Castro regime does not confer our approval. In this sense, normalization of relations in no way validates Fidel and Raul Castro.

In fact, the new American ambassador in Havana will have a unique platform to make clear our continued opposition to their cynicism, brutality, and repudiation of democratic values. We should see our relations with Cuba through a long-term prism. And if we can do that, I think we will be able to convince ourselves that by engaging and interacting with the Cuban people, we will be much more effective in pushing for the kind of changes we wish to see there and in our wider hemisphere.

These interviews were lightly edited for length and clarity.