President Obama’s announcement of new measures that will thaw relations between the US and Cuba is both long-overdue, and a canny foreign policy ploy by the White House.
For President Obama, with two years remaining in office, a landmark move with respect to Cuba will help buttress a liberal legacy that he promised in 2008, but has not lived up to. Having been unable to fulfil his promise to shut the detention centre off Cuba at Guantánamo Bay, this rapprochement is an important achievement of his tenure.
However, at the heart of this geopolitical chess move is that it places Cuba in zugzwang: Cuba has been forced into making a move, and it would rather not make one at all. Unable to draw upon the skills of Capablanca, Cuba’s finest grandmaster, and one of the best ever, the regime was stalling.
Although the Vatican and Canada have been brokering a move for 18 months, the timing of the announcement coincides nicely for the US with the nadir in the power of Cuba’s fundamental regional ally and fellow US antagonist, Venezuela. Cuba realises that the dire economic situation in Venezuela, exacerbated by the dramatic fall in the price of oil, will severely limit the financial aid and fuel subsidies Caracas can provide Cuba.
With no other option, in economic zugzwang, Cuba consented. In his address, President Raúl Castro reminded Cubans that there were still fundamental ideological differences and conflicts of interests with its neighbour to the north. However, Castro will try to frame the about-turn as part of his gradual plan for updating Cuba’s socialist model, coming after lifting the ban on Cubans travelling abroad last year.
Another interesting and important geopolitical question is what will become of an old Soviet spy base the Russians had hoped to re-open on the island, and for which a provisional agreement had been reached in July. Being in zugzwang, Castro has been forced to make a pivot to the US that hinders Moscow.
For the US, free market principles are also at play. Due to the thawed relationship, as Cuba slowly edges away from, or at very least adapts its state socialist model, the US is able to dangle the carrot of prosperity that may provide the best hope for regime change. In one of the key US reforms, US citizens will now be able to increase their remittances to the island to $2,000 per quarter, up from $500. This added injection of cash for ordinary Cubans will help erode reliance on the government system.
Another crucial area will be internet provision following telecommunication reform. Until now, only about 20% of Cubans have used the web. Greater awareness of technology and other developments outside the island may lead Cubans to question the value of its current regime and drive popular demand for reform.
In terms of foreign direct investment, US businesses, particularly in the agricultural manufacturing industry, will be particularly interested. Despite ample land for growing food produce, Cuba currently imports over half of what it consumes because of a lack of equipment. There is a market, and the US is best placed to provide its needs.
However, despite the many positive changes the rapprochement could bring, not all US citizens with ties to Cuba welcomed the news. Cuban exiles, particularly in south Florida still want nothing to do with the regime that dissolved their or their families’ assets after the 1959 revolution.
In particular, Florida’s Republican Senator Marco Rubio, born to Cuban parents, criticised the move as a “dangerous and desperate attempt by the President to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense.”
But for a generation of US citizens who did not grow up with the Cold War, historic antipathy has waned and campaigns to end the embargo have gathered force.
Obama and the US have more pressing foreign relations issues, but the US has played a smart move which undermines rival global powers. More importantly, it is a gambit that accomplishes a longstanding geopolitical aim by putting the wheels of change in Cuba firmly in motion.
This article was first published by Pulsamérica: The Impartial Latin American News Link on 18 December 2014.