As myself and basically anyone else paying attention has long said, President Barack Obama is officially going to normalize relations with Cuba. This goes much farther than his previous attempts to relax restrictions and warm up relations between the two countries. I think this is an excellent use of the lame duck portion of a second term–perhaps clean up the drone and torture programs and fix students loans and immigration on your way out and we’ll be square, Mr. President.
Here are my biggest take-aways from the speech:
- The Pope was instrumental in this negotiation. The Pope has always had great popularity in Cuba, and his predecessor’s visit there was seen as an acceptance of Afro-Cuban religions that riff on Catholicism. The papacy continues its legacy of advocating for the release of political prisoners, and for greater respect of human rights.
- I’m not surprised that the release of Alan Gross and the remaining Cuban 5 (Los Cinco Heroes) were major points in bargaining (along with an unnamed US operative), although Obama chose to refer to the 5 as agents, continuing the US government’s stance in the face of pretty compelling evidence. To learn more about the Cuban 5, check out the movie The Trial (El Proceso.)
- Cuba’s placement on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorists will be re-examined by State. Relations could never fully normalize without this step, and more importantly, it has not been a fact-based assessment of the Cuban government for a long time, if ever.
The US backing off on telecom restrictions means that the US will no longer be the reason that internet access is so fractured and slow. Will this lead to the Cuban government relaxing their own restrictions on access to the internet and cell phones? Soon they won’t be able to blame this on anyone but themselves.
- Americans will be able to import certain goods, with restrictions. Well hello there, Havana Club! I expect to see cigars and rum at a huge markup soon. Authorize American citizens to import additional goods from Cuba
- Tourists will be able to spend US dollars and use US debit cards. But don’t think that means you can just carry plastic around. Cuba is almost entirely a cash economy. I’m waiting to hear whether Cuba will removed the tax on USD that artificially pegs the dollar to the CUC (the more expensive of the two currencies.)
- Speaking of currencies, it’s not surprising that renewed interest within the government in abolishing the two-currency system in Cuba precipitated this announcement.
General Licenses to travel to Cuba have been expanded. This type of license is far less paperwork (and potentially money), has fewer time and other restrictions, and now covers Family visits, Journalism, Educational and research activities, religious activities, Official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations, humanitarian projects, artistic or athletic activity, information sharing, certain types of commerce, private foundations, and the appropriately vague “support for the Cuban people.”
- President Obama still needs Congress to officially remove the embargo, which is a Treasury issue, as opposed to normalizing diplomatic relations, which falls directly under the president’s purview in the Constitution. Until the embargo is lifted, there is still a punishment in place for spending USD or trading with Cuba.
There will no longer be caps on remittances sent to Cuba, which means investments, medicine, medical equipment, staple foods and textbooks will be able to make their way to the island, along with other goods. I hope there isn’t too much price gauging, although in the past the US sold these things for cash upfront at a markup, so market price will probably be a relief.
- 53 political prisoners are being released in Cuba.
- I’m glad to hear Obama acknowledge Cuba’s amazing health care, as well as their role in Ebola prevention and care, something mainstream media in the US has shied away from.
President Obama’s research team was on point–referencing Jose Martí was a great way to show some amount of understanding of Cuban culture.
Lack of relations with Cuba has been absurd for a long time. As the president points out, our relationships with China and Vietnam make this look absurd. I am also absolutely still cautious about what this means for Cuba. There are aspects of materialism and tourism there already, but like anyone who loves the island, I’m wary of anything that could harm its natural beauty or cannibalize it economically.
How soon can I get back there? It’s already been a year and a half, and I would love to witness how these changes continue to change Cuba.
What are your thoughts on the President’s announcement?