More than half a century had to pass before the US and Cuba reopened their respective embassies and started to work towards fostering amiable and cooperative relations. The diplomatic breakthrough was a result of both the political will of Barack Obama and Raul Castro, and the favourable domestic and international developments.
With the Cuban Revolution and the overthrow of the US-backed Batista government in 1959, Fidel Castro turned Cuba into a Marxist-Leninist state to the horror of the US, which lost its puppet regime in the heat of the Cold War. Cuba came to be seen as the primary Soviet satellite in the Caribbean, which Washington naturally translated as a major threat to US security and interests. It was not only the geographical proximity of an anti-capitalist state to US territory that troubled policymakers, but also the possibility that the ideas of Castro and the Cuban Revolution could spread to other parts of Central and South America and ultimately endanger US’s sphere of influence on the continent.
Domestically, Castro pursued a widespread nationalisation programme, expelling major American business ventures that previously enjoyed the protection and ‘blessing’ of former American protégé President Batista. The regime also officially declared Cuba an atheist country and banned religious organisations. The sweeping changes of Cuban domestic reality led to Cubans, in disagreement with the new policies of the Castro government, fleeing the country en masse. The Cuban exiles in Florida, US became the most vocal Castro opponents and sought for years on end his overthrow from power. Their main platform for the anti-Castro rhetoric has been the established Cuban American Lobby during Ronald Reagan’s Administration, which has been, quite successfully, appealing to policymakers in Washington to pursue a hard-line policy towards the Castro regime. The launch of Radio Marti and subsequently a television channel contributed to the Cuban American Lobby’s efforts to spread their anti-Castro views.
The measures taken to deal with Fidel Castro’s regime are at best described as American hard power. The economic embargo imposed in 1961, and still in place as of today, banning American trade with the island, caused an extreme damage to civilians in Cuba without any success at overthrowing Castro, or at least changing his government’s socialist policies. The Bay of Pigs invasion, orchestrated by the CIA, came to be known as a major, if not the biggest, embarrassment in the history of US foreign policy as trained Cuban exiles were sent to forcefully topple Castro, which resulted in a complete failure with most expatriates being killed or captured. Some claim that there have been numerous unreported operations by the CIA aimed at deposing Fidel Castro; yet, his legacy, and now with his brother Raul Castro in the leadership position, has remained in place.
All in all, American hard power has been utterly unsuccessful at achieving the desired outcome, removing Castro from power and bringing back Cuba to the US’s sphere of influence. The Cold War’s perhaps most crucial point, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, raised the tension between the two great powers over Cuba, but the status quo endured. What could have been the alternative to hard power then? Conceivably the years of the US-Soviet antagonism and the then international environment required such highly aggressive policies addressing disobedience to the mantra of the great powers.
The failed hard-line approach couldn’t be abandoned altogether, but the realisation came that a combination of American hard and soft power, the so-called ‘smart power’, could have the potential to be better at influencing Cuban domestic politics. Soft power, with focus on attractiveness based on cultural, political and foreign policy considerations, seeks to project appeal to a wide audience and in this way to establish, maintain relations and foster certain modes of behaviour and interests. A good example of American soft power is baseball, which has had a major impact on US-Cuban relations since both nations share a fondness of the game. Thus, Baseball Diplomacy with the exchanges of American and Cuban baseball teams raised a lot of attention to the US-Cuban relations and was most certainly a starting point of communication. However, the major issue with American smart power is that the economic embargo (hard power) could well undermine any cultural initiatives (soft power).
In diplomacy gestures speak a thousand words; President Obama’s handshake with Cuban head of state Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela Memorial service in 2013 has signified the willingness and determination to open a new chapter in Cuban-American relations. Indeed, Bill Clinton in 2000 also famously shook hands with Fidel Castro, but there was hardly any thaw in the relations. That is why political leadership makes a difference. Raul Castro, no matter that he has been having an active role in the Cuban government, is not Fidel in the sense that the association with the person who led the Cuban Revolution would be difficult to bring appeasement. When Fidel stepped down from the leadership, hopes were high for improvement in the relations, and indeed the Obama Administration has demonstrated decisiveness to reopen diplomatic relations. In fact the ease on travel restrictions for American citizens has been a clear sign for this determination.
Namely because political leadership is so important, it remains to be seen, with the forthcoming presidential elections, what the next US President’s policy towards Cuba would be – certainly a Conservative would seek to avoid normalisation. It is also vital to realise that even though this diplomatic success is definitely a step forward, the economic embargo is still in place (and highly unlikely to be lifted anytime soon) and Guantanamo Naval Base together with the infamous US detention camp are still operating on Cuban soil without Cuban consent. Many variables at play are likely to influence Cuban-American relations; nonetheless the reopening of embassies is a big win for diplomacy and a stepping-stone towards a full restoration of diplomatic relations.