It is the dawn of a new era in political and economic relations between the United States and Cuba as President Barrack Obama has agreed to restore full diplomatic ties with the island nation of 11.2-million people.
This includes the opening of an embassy in Havana, the capital of Cuba, for the first time in more than half a century and taking steps that would effectively end the economic embargo that has been in place since the Kennedy era.
While Obama can take lift certain aspects of the embargo, the decision to completely abolish the embargo lies with a vote in the U.S. Congress.
“Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future – for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world,” said Obama in the televised speech. “To the Cuban people, America extends a hand of friendship. Some of you have looked to us as a source of hope, and we will continue to shine a light of freedom.”
The announcement coincided with a televised speech by Cuban President Raul Castro, who said Obama’s decision “deserves the respect and recognition of our (the Cuban) people.”
As part of the detente, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will review Cuba’s designation as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism,” a list of countries that also consists of Iran, Sudan and Syria.
Restrictions on remittances, travel and banking will be eased by the United States, with American travellers being able to use credit cards in Cuba and legally bring home $400 worth of goods. This includes the ability to import up to $100 in previously illegal Cuban cigars.
Telecommunications companies will also be able to branch out to Cuba to further develop the nation’s internet infrastructure. With just 5 per cent of Cubans having access to the internet, the nation has one of the lowest rates of internet penetration in the world.
However, the historic agreement would not be made possible without the release of prisoners from both countries on Wednesday. The United States released three imprisoned Cuban spies caught in 1998 while Cuba released U.S. citizen Alan Gross, a U.S. Aid contractor who was imprisoned five years ago.
Relations between the United States and Cuba sharply deteriorated in 1960 after Fidel Castro took power and began to implement his hard socialist policies. President Dwight D. Eisenhower introduced the first trade embargo and severed all diplomatic relations.
This was quickly followed by President John F. Kennedy’s failed Bay of Pigs invasion to overthrow Castro in 1961 and Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 when it was revealed Soviet missiles pointed at the U.S. mainland were installed in Cuba – just 300 kilometres south of Miami.
Multiple presidents retained the embargo on Cuba even long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. In addition to the embargo, U.S. lawmakers have also placed sanctions on Cuba aimed at targeting its poor human rights record.
“Neither the American, nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born,” said Obama. “Consider that for more than 35 years, we’ve had relations with China – a far larger country also governed by a Communist Party. Nearly two decades ago, we reestablished relations with Vietnam, where we fought a war that claimed more Americans than any Cold War confrontation.”
Both Obama and Castro thanked Canada in their televised speeches for its role in secretly facilitating the discussions between high-level American and Cuban officials.
At least seven meetings were held in Toronto and Ottawa since June 2013 between both parties, however, the Canadian federal government played no role in mediating the discussions.
“Canada was pleased to host the senior officials from the United States and Cuba, which permitted them the discretion required to carry out these important talks,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper in a statement. “Canada supports a future for Cuba that fully embraces the fundamental values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”
The Vatican’s Pope Francis was also involved in the secret discussions. “I want to thank His Holiness Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is,” said Obama.
While the United States turned its back on Cuba in the 1960s, Canada did not and has maintained close political and trade relations with the nation to this day.
Over the decades, Cuba has even become an affordable tropical getaway for many Canadians as Americans are not permitted to travel to island due to the self-imposed diplomatic and travel ban.
However, that could all change with Obama’s policy to ease travel restrictions: it could flood the island’s tropical beaches with American tourists, in effect raising prices as Cuba lacks the necessary infrastructure and accommodations to handle a larger influx of tourists.
Feature Image: Havana, Cuba via Shutterstock