Every year since 1991, the United States has voted in favor of the sanctions that it imposed on Cuba . On October 26, the United States abstained from the annual UN General Assembly vote condemning the U.S. embargo on Cuba. While the nation’s abstention does not display definitive solidarity with its island neighbor, it does show a positive change in the American mindset toward Cuba.
Debate over whether to normalize relations with Cuba has been hotly contested for decades. The United States had previously refused to negotiate with Cuba under the pretense that its government, in promoting communism, has infringed on the basic human rights of the Cuban people. The United States has attempted to coerce the Cuban government through force, namely with the 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion in which the US sent Cuban-American soldiers to overthrow the Castro Regime, which ultimately failed. Additionally, American presidents have tried to change Cuba through economic measures, starting with President John F. Kennedy’s implementation of a complete embargo on trade between the United States and Cuba in 1963, and later with President George H.W. Bush additional sanctions outside of the embargo in 1992.
The recent change in United States policy on Cuba has reflected a positive shift in Americans’ attitude towards the country. In the last ten years, Cuba’s favorability rating among American citizens has sharply risen by 33%, and as of 2014, nearly 70% of first-generation Cuban immigrants living in the United States favor the normalization of relations with their home country. It is thus appropriate that President Obama has taken actions to lift the sanctions and reestablish diplomatic ties with Cuba.
But while many favor such action, the United States must be cautious throughout this process. History has shown that Cuba does not respond well to an overbearing foreign power, and many of the actions that the United States plans to take have the potential to lead to another conflict.
In the last 150 years, the two major conflicts in Cuba have largely been in response to direct and indirect forms of imperialism. Over a course of thirty years in the late nineteenth century, Cubans fought a series of three wars in an attempt to free themselves from imperial Spanish rule. Succeeding on the third attempt with assistance from the United States, Cuba was quickly replaced under imperial power, albeit in a more indirect manner. Almost immediately after the conclusion of the revolution, the United States was able to take control of many parts of the island. Forced into the Cuban Constitution by the United States, the Platt Amendment gave the United States the ability to intervene in any Cuban affairs and dictate Cuban foreign policy, and formalized an agreement mandating Cuba to sell or lease territory to the United States, ultimately giving the United States control over Guantanamo Bay. The United States exercised these rights that it had granted itself and intervened militarily many times in order to protect American interests. The presence and intervention of the United States gradually increased over the course of sixty years, to the point where the United States had control of “80 percent of Cuban utilities, 90 percent of Cuban mines, close to 100 percent of the country’s oil refineries, 90 percent of its cattle ranches, and 40 percent of the sugar industry.” The dictatorship of U.S.-backed leader Fulgencio Batista was the tipping point for the Cuban people, triggering the 1959 Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro.
It is not difficult to recognize that the imperial measures taken by the United States between 1898 and 1959 were the motivating factors that drove Cuba toward revolution in the mid-twentieth century. The embargo imposed by the United States on Cuba has been ultimately ineffective in achieving its original intent––to defeat socialism. The primary effect that the sanctions and the embargo have had on Cuba pertains to the Cuban people, as they have suffered as a direct result of American actions. As the major economic power of the West, the United States has a wealth of influence on smaller countries of close proximity. Cutting off all economic ties with Cuba has not destroyed socialism, nor has it destroyed the Castro regime; rather, it has deeply hurt the Cuban people’s quality of life and their human rights.
President Obama has taken the first critical step to help truly liberate the Cuban people – in December 2014, he initiated normalization by reestablishing diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. While such actions will not oust the Castro regime, the people of Cuba will benefit immensely, as they will see an increase in economic opportunity and subsequently an improvement in quality of life. However, the United States must remain cautious and not move too quickly during the normalization process, as a lack of restriction could be detrimental to Cuba and to the progress made between the two countries. While it may not be the official intention of the United States to do so, a simple lifting of all sanctions could lead to a massive influx of American businesses in Cuba. The economic environment of Cuba could quickly become that of the 1950s, with American interests controlling major sections of the Cuban economy. The next president of the United States must follow President Obama’s lead, but also create an agenda that places regulations on American businesses that look to expand into Cuba. While the US Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has effectively repealed a number of sanctions placed on Cuba, this agency must scrutinize US-Cuban dealings to a much higher degree. Already, there are instances of large American businesses using the Cuban government to promote their own interests, as we have seen American hotel chains, like Sheraton, grant ownership rights to the Cuban military, the true oppressors of the Cuban people.
The United States has played a critical role in creating Cuba as we see it today, and the United States is the only nation with the capability to improve the current situation. If the actions taken by the Obama administration are truly intended to benefit the Cuban people, scrutiny and transparency must be the first priority before allowing American businesses to deal with Cuba; the United States must act with restraint in order to avoid a relapse.