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Has the Castro regime won against the USA?

Cuban-Americans protest in Miami on Wednesday.
Cuban-Americans protest in Miami on Wednesday. Joe Raedle, AFP/Getty
Text by: Thomas HUBERT
5 min

Following Wednesday’s announcement by the Cuban and US presidents that they would restore diplomatic relations, some critics have argued that the rapprochement gives away too much too soon to Havana’s communist government.

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US president Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro said on Wednesday, December 17 that their countries would “normalise” their relations, with the US planning to open an embassy in Havana and partially relax the economic embargo imposed on the neighbouring communist island for 53 years.

The two countries have also exchanged prisoners accused of spying on each other’s nations, including US aid contractor Alan Gross and three convicted Cuban agents.

The move has attracted praise around the world, but critics have also slammed Obama for giving away too much.

“The Castro regime has won, although it is positive that Alan Gross has come out alive from the prison that threatened to become his grave,” influential political blogger Yoani Sánchez wrote on the independent news website 14Ymedio.com, which she founded earlier this year.

According to Sánchez, the Cuban government’ strategy all along had been to detain Gross as a bargaining chip to wrest concessions out of Washington, and it has worked. She points out that, “We do not have a public timeline by which the Cuban government commits to democratic policies.”

The momentum from Wednesday’s announcement should be used to “take advantage of the synergy of both announcements to extract a public promise” that Cuba will release political prisoners and improve its human rights record, Sánchez wrote.

Cuban dissidents “feel they have been undercut”

Many Cuban civil society activists think Obama should have obtained such commitments before announcing a rapprochement with Cuba. The Associated Press’s correspondent in Havana, Christopher Gillette, who attended a meeting of prominent dissidents on Wednesday evening, told FRANCE 24: “Generally speaking, they were quite unhappy with the news that the US was moving forward with re-establishing diplomatic ties. They feel they have been undercut – they say the Obama administration has promised to advise them before any such move, which has not happened.”

In the US, too, some Cuban exiles have reacted angrily. “The White House has conceded everything and gained little. They gained no commitment on the part of the Cuban regime to freedom of press or freedom of speech or elections,” said Republican Senator Marco Rubio, himself the descendant of Cuban immigrants. The incoming chairman of the Senate’s foreign relations committee promised to “unravel” Obama’s plans to restore ties with Cuba.

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In the US state of Florida, which hundreds of thousands of Cuban migrants call home, some welcomed the presidential speeches. But others were seething at what they called “treason”.

“The old guard is saying: ‘We did not get enough in this deal. What do Cuban people get in exchange for more business and more travel with the US?'” said FRANCE 24’s Miami correspondent Douglas Hanks. He also noted a “classic generational divide” with younger Cuban-Americans being more supportive of the rapprochement.

FRANCE 24’s international affairs editor Douglas Herbert pointed out that conservative activists are angry to see the Obama administration throw a “lifeline” to Cuba’s communist regime at a time when it was “losing its old benefactors”. “The Soviet Union has collapsed, Venezuela is crushed under falling oil prices, so Cuba is turning to the US and the US is giving it the cash it wants,” Herbert quotes the critics as saying.

Who would benefit from increased business ties?

Relaxing the US embargo would open a broad range of business opportunities in Cuba, from medicines to agriculture and mining. For example, “Cuba has the third or fourth largest nickel deposits in the world, which the US currently has to import from as far away as Australia,” Kirby Jones, a financial analyst at Alamar Associates, told FRANCE 24.

But Obama’s detractors argue that only the Cuban elite would benefit from the real economic potential of improved relations with the US. José R. Cárdenas, a former senior official on Latin American policy under former president George W. Bush, wrote on the website of Foreign Policy magazine that “Cuba's geriatric generals are laughing all the way to the bank”.

However, British academic Stephen Wilkison, who edits the International Journal of Cuban Studies, dismisses such critics as “dinosaurs thrashing in the mud”.

“US policy has been the main obstacle to Cuba’s economic development. The changes will increase prosperity in Cuba and people’s living standards will improve,” Wilkinson told FRANCE 24.

According to him, this is a prerequisite for political reforms to take place – and they are more likely to come from inside Cuba than from “US coercion”.

“People who say that Cuba can democratise without prosperity are not in tune with the majority of the population, who want to retain their good healthcare and education system,” Wilkinson said. “No democracy can function without a state able to provide those services, which in turn depends on economic development.”

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