Noam Chomsky recently commented that the context in which Washington decided to shift its long-standing policy of isolating the communist Cuban government came after the fact that U.S. public opinion and business sectors supported the end of such a policy for a long time. And in spite of that, Washington only officially started the normalization of diplomatic relations in December 2014.
“For decades in surveys, the U.S. population has expressed their support for normalization of relations," he said in an interview with the Mexican daily La Jornada. “However, by norm, public opinion is ignored. What is more interesting is that greater sectors of the U.S. capital have been in favor [of the normalization of relations] such as pharmaceuticals, energy and agro-industrial sectors, among others. Usually, these are the sectors that in effect make the decisions, but when they are ignored, this only goes to show that there is an even greater interest in government.”
Cuba expert Jeanette Habel, from Paris Sorbonne and Arnold August, author of "Cuba and Its Neighbours: Democracy in Motion", gave some insights to teleSUR, explaining which factors combined and finally pushed President Barack Obama to radically change U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Waning Influence in Latin America
Both agree that the major factor was definitely the declining influence of the United States in Latin America, labeled as “America's backyard” since the Monroe Doctrine – based on isolating and controlling the “communist virus” at whatever cost since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution.
Habel recalled that President Barack Obama announced the beginning of a normalization process in December 2014 ahead of the 7th Summit of the Americas, due four months later. An overwhelming majority of Latin American presidents had threatened to boycott the event if Cuba was excluded from participating one more time. Fearing a tremendous diplomatic failure, Obama's team decided to reach out to their Cuban counterparts in order to start negotiating the presence of Cuba at the summit, the first step toward a normalization of diplomatic relations.
Historians William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh actually emphasized in their book, “Back Channel to Cuba”, that since the beginning of the Cuban Revolution, many U.S. presidents attempted to normalize relations with Cuba, from John F. Kennedy's offering of an olive branch to Fidel Castro after the missile crisis, to Henry Kissinger's top secret quest for normalization.
But now, in the context of a loss of U.S. hegemony in the region, the Cuban issue became more pregnant. As August highlighted, “The official narrative totally aligned with the real goal: Obama himself admitted in December 2014 that the blockade policy had failed and this failure required a change in tactics.”
The U.S. long-term strategy remains regime change in Cuba, he added. Obama was elected with the support of the vast majority of the country's ruling sectors, who funded his 2008 and 2012 electoral campaigns, in order “to give a new face to U.S. imperialism,” and alleviate the anti-U.S. animosity fomented during the Bush era, August stated.
The Cuban Market
Meanwhile, the Cuban market – representing about 11 million people – was slipping out of the U.S. business sector's hands, while their European, Chinese, Brazilian and Venezuelan competitors have been able to invest in Cuban infrastructures, refineries, among other things.
Therefore, this sector lobbied more and more in order to modify the traditional political stance on Cuba. “They are less sensitive to the political aspect of the relationship with the communist regime, and fully support Obama's initiative to normalize relations,” explained Habel.
As Washington realized that the “two-track policy” of "carrot and stick" did not pay off, she added, they decided to remove the stick, while keeping the carrot: the “soft-power” via the flow of dollars, investments, consumer goods, tourism and culture.
US More Open to Negotiating with Raul Castro
Both countries reached a relatively concomitant political cycle. Raul Castro formally took office in 2008, one year before Democrat presidential candidate Obama was elected in the United States. Although Fidel Castro, the historical leader, always affirmed he was opened to negotiations as long as Cuban sovereignty was respected, the U.S. was more inflexible with him.
The diplomatic shift also came at a time when foreign investment was more aligned with Cuba's economic policies, as the country initiated a new round of relative privatization of the Cuban economy.
The Role of Pope Francis
The church also played a crucial role, according to Habel, at least the Cuban Catholic Church. Cuban Cardinal Ortega advocated for national reconciliation for a long time, preparing the ground work for the visit of the first Latin American pope in 2013. Pope Francis directly intervened as a mediator. Part of the preliminary talks took place at the Vatican, said Habel.
Changing Views of Cuban-Americans
Both analysts agreed that another important factor was the evolution of the Cuban diaspora living in the U.S., especially in the state of Florida. While the first wave of emigrants belonged to the Cuban intelligentsia and former dictator Battista's inner circles, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Cubans emigrated for economic rather than political reasons, seeking better opportunities. They are more open to renewing relations with Cuba as a communist regime.
The younger generation of Cubans living in the U.S. were born in the United States, they have relatives in Cuba, and therefore support Obama's shift because they wish to visit them or send them money.
Republican candidate Marco Rubio failed to understand this “generational effect,” said August, as the candidate had to end is campaign after losing his home state of Florida in the Republican caucus this week, with a virulent anti-Castro program. Now the Latino minority living in Florida votes mostly for the Democratic Party, added Habel.
However, in Habel's opinion, the normalization of diplomatic relations between both countries could also have, in the long run, a devastating effect on the small island, with the flow of U.S. dollars, investments, tourism and consumer goods. Cuba has vowed, however, that its soveregnty will stay intact no matter what designs the U.S. may have.