Today’s dramatic shift in U.S.-Cuban relations brings a long and strange chapter in American diplomacy to an end. Cuba was one of the flash points of the early years of the Cold War, as the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 remains the closest the U.S. and USSR came to nuclear conflict. However, in the final years and decades of the Cold War, Cuba was more significant as a symbolic thorn in Washington’s side, and for the role Florida’ s Cuban expat played in domestic American politics than for its real impact on U.S. security. In the more than two decades since the end of the Cold War, Cuba has remained a relic of a previous epoch, governed by an authoritarian regime, isolated from the US and still maintaining close ties with Moscow. By establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, for the first time since 1961, the U.S. will not bring the teetering Castro regime to an end or bring democracy to Cuba, but it may accelerate both these developments.
The U.S. policy of isolating Cuba has long been one of questionable value. As President Obama pointed out in his speech today, the U.S. has had diplomatic relations with China for more than 30 years, despite its authoritarian and often brutal Communist regime, but has denied that relationship to a similar government in Cuba. Moreover, the U.S. approach to human rights and democracy, regardless of the party in office, has long been based on the notion that engagement was more likely than isolation to bring about change. Cuba was always a strange exception to that reasonable policy.
President Obama’s change in the U.S. policy towards Cuba is one of the boldest foreign policy moves of his presidency, but it is one that within a few years will seem very ordinary. Critics of President Obama may try to portray this as the U.S. being weak in the face of tyranny and favoring authoritarian regimes over our traditional allies. These criticisms, however, will likely whither as U.S. influence, businesses, wealth and tourism begin to change Cuba as they inevitably will. Five years from now it will be the more than five decades of isolation, rather than Mr. Obama’s decision today that will strike Americans as unusual and tough to explain.
Renewed American-Cuban diplomatic ties will almost inevitably lead to increased American influence in the Caribbean. This does not mean that Cuba will quickly reform and shake off its authoritarian government, but the historic agreement will almost certainly mean more trade and travel between the two countries, a greater American influence on political and economic life in Cuba and more bilateral ties. It should not be overlooked that one of the big losers if that occurs will be Russia. In the years since the Cold War, Russia and Cuba have maintained close ties; and Cuba has frequently benefited from Russian economic support. American recognition will likely change that, making Cuba less dependent on Russia and weakening Moscow’s link with one of its strongest allies in our region. This is good for the U.S., and is another blow to Vladimir Putin, who also faces a Ruble in free fall.
Diplomatic developments like this one do not happen quickly, and there are still many aspects that need to be determined such as: when embassies will be established, how Cubans will be allowed to travel to the U.S., how American businesses will be allowed to operate in Cuba, and how big league baseball will handle this enormous influx of talent. Nonetheless, President Obama’s decision today will ultimately serve both countries.
Lincoln MItchell is the national political correspondent for the Observer. Follow him on Twitter @LincolnMitchell.