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US-Cuba Relations: Too Early to Judge

20/05/2015 10:46 BST | Updated 20/05/2016 10:59 BST

It's been hailed as a historic move, and in many ways it undoubtedly is. The gradual normalization of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, which began with a more or less veiled prisoners' swap last year, is nonetheless still in its early and tentative stages.

After Obama officially admitted that the hostile policies his country adopted toward Cuba have clearly failed, Raul Castro was quick to point out that in order for "normalization" to proceed fruitfully, the embargo America has imposed on the Caribbean island needs to be lifted. Raul Castro even hinted at the fact that Obama himself possesses the executive power necessary to lift the embargo by bypassing Congress (something the American president will, of course, never do).

The lifting of the embargo is for Cuba the condition sine qua non without which there cannot possibly be any further talks between the two countries, which have been divided by over 50 bitter years of Cold War rhetoric and skirmishes of varying degrees of seriousness.

Cuba has vigorously denounced the cruelty and illegitimacy of the economic embargo that has effectively crippled the island's economy and made any development, be it social or economic, slower and more difficult. Of course, now is not the time for recriminations because the benefits that lifting the sanctions would bring are far too important. Even so, the Cuban leadership is not in a supine position, and is on the contrary warning that both parties must be patient and that change will not materialize overnight.

Meanwhile the first signs of a new era are already here. Legal restrictions have been eased, and it is now allegedly easier for American citizens to travel to Cuba and, probably to a lesser extent, vice versa. A bill seeking to lift the trade embargo was introduced in Congress in February by a group of Democratic and Republican senators. The proposed legislation is said to focus more on the improvement of the economic aspects of the two countries' relations but remains firm on what America perceives to be the violations of human rights and civil liberties going on in Cuba.

The fact that a country that has illegally invaded multiple sovereign countries in the last sixty years and entertains friendly diplomatic relations with medieval monarchies in the Middle East is so concerned about the civil liberties of the Cuban population is a comment on itself. Though it is undoubtedly far-from-perfect, the Cuban revolution has survived the collapse of the Soviet Union and a rather hostile environment with dignity.

Compared to several other Latin American countries, the living conditions in Cuba are far higher than average, crime rates are incomparably lower and its fulfillment of basic human rights such as health care, education and housing are the envy of many nations around the world, America included. Yet the Cuban economy has struggled considerably, especially since the demise of communism in Russia. That is why this potential new chapter in the history of U.S.-Cuban relations could herald both a more prosperous era for Cuba and a profound change in its political status.

No one really knows what future developments might realistically be like. Caution on the side of the Cuban authorities certainly signals their determination not to sell out the country's political independence or its resources. Obviously both parties see some advantages in the normalization of their diplomatic relations, but the price that each will have to pay for this normalization is still extremely unclear.

Given the disproportionate imbalance of power between the two nations and the limited leverage Cuba can exercise during possible negotiations, it is not entirely irrational to think that those who will have to compromise the most will be the Cubans. Cuba's government structure is in fact already said to be changing in order to make more room for civil society and free enterprise in life on the island.

On the other hand, America's decision to change its imperialist attitude toward the Marxist island could be seen as a great victory for Cuba, which has not surrendered after all these years and is now watching its historic enemy admit its mistakes. Only time will tell what this new era will mean for Cuba.

For the time being, though, it is clear that things are not moving quickly. It is quite the opposite. When Cuba's presence at the Summit of the Americas in Panama was announced last December after years of the country's absence from the forum, it was seen by many commentators as a clear sign of the fast-changing relations between the U.S. and Cuba. When the respective presidents actually met in Panama this April, nothing much came of it except for a widely-circulated photo of a handshake between Castro and Obama. Although that gesture is surely of historic symbolic significance, on a more substantial and formal level, nothing was decided in Panama. There is no Cuban embassy opening in Washington nor an American one opening in Havana. So far, words have been more prominent than facts and actions, which is why the nature and future of this historic change in geopolitical trajectories is everything but defined.

This articles has previously appeared on China.org.cn