Cuba-U.S. Ties

Close neighbors Cuba and the U.S. have had one of the world’s strangest relationships. Think of it: A Caribbean island-nation of just 11 million people locked in a seemingly permanent standoff with a superpower. The row has ebbed and flowed for more than half a century, bringing the world to the brink of nuclear war, reshaping the culture and politics of the third-largest U.S. state, and outliving the Cold War that provoked the dispute in the first place. The longtime enemies established diplomatic relations in 2015 when Barack Obama was U.S. president, and the U.S. eased a five-decade trade embargo. Then Donald Trump replaced Obama and reversed course, imposing painful economic sanctions and new travel restrictions on Cuba. The next U.S. president, Joe Biden, has signaled he wants to turn the clock back (but not too far) and rethaw relations. 

The Situation

Biden has suggested he wants to continue the Obama-era policies of easing economic and travel restrictions in hopes that closer ties and more capitalism will pave the way for democratic change on the communist island. That would mark a dramatic departure from Trump’s administration, which in 2018 labelled Cuba part of a “Troika of Tyranny” with Nicaragua and Venezuela. In a wave of new sanctions, the U.S. under Trump opened the door for lawsuits against companies benefiting from property confiscated by the government in Cuba, prohibited educational trips and cruises there, and limited direct flights.  As Trump courted the critical Cuban-American vote in Florida in the run-up to his failed 2020 reelection bid, the U.S. effectively cut off remittances to Cuba. His administration also tried to interrupt the flow of oil to Cuba from Venezuela, its key economic allay. That the fresh sanctions came in the middle of a global pandemic only made them more painful. In December 2020, Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel announced that the government would adopt deep, market-oriented economic reforms, including scrapping a decades-old dual currency system — effectively sparking a devaluation in hopes of attracting foreign investment. If Biden pursues the rapprochement, he will face pushback. Many in the U.S. say the Cuban government bears some responsibility for a spate of mysterious symptoms that sidelined almost two dozen U.S. diplomats on the island from 2016 to 2018. U.S. researchers believe the officials were victims of a state-sponsored radio-frequency, or microwave, attack — but it’s still not clear if Cuba or another nation was behind it. There are also concerns about Cuba’s continued crackdown on dissent and track record of human rights abuses.

The Background

Fidel Castro’s ousting of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 remained an inspiration to revolutionary movements around the world even as Cuba became a communist dictatorship. After Castro allied Cuba with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, the U.S. severed relations in 1961 and backed the Bay of Pigs invasion to topple him. After it failed, the U.S. imposed a trade embargo. Cuba’s decision to host Soviet nuclear-missile bases led to a 13-day crisis in 1962 that teetered on the edge of nuclear war. Years of anti-Castro legislation in the U.S. culminated in the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which established conditions for lifting the trade embargo, including multiparty Cuban elections and the removal of Castro and his brother Raul, who succeeded him as president in 2008. Fidel Castro died in 2016, and Diaz-Canel took power in 2018. Removing the embargo entirely would require an act of Congress. An old guard of well-organized and wealthy Cuban émigrés to the U.S. who oppose legitimizing Cuba’s government traditionally have had influence beyond their numbers in U.S. politics because in 10 of the last 12 presidential elections, the candidate who won Florida won the presidency. The embargo permits enough trade, mostly in agricultural products, to make the U.S. Cuba’s tenth-biggest market for imports.

The Argument

Strengthening ties with the Caribbean’s largest island has backers in the U.S. business community. As the embargo has kept American companies from playing in Cuba — a natural trading partner just 90 miles off the coast of Florida — competitors have swooped in, snapping up opportunities and undermining Washington’s influence. Closer U.S. ties, they argue, could help stymie growing Chinese and Russian influence in the region. Opponents of rapprochement, including some Cuban human rights groups, say the move would toss a lifeline to a dying dictatorship just as the economy is on the ropes. They argue that Trump’s draconian policies proved effective, forcing Diaz-Canel to make painful economic changes that will weaken his grip on power.

The Reference Shelf

  • The Council on Foreign Relations explores U.S.-Cuba relations in a timeline
  • The Congressional Research Service examines issues surrounding U.S.-Cuba relations in this paper.
  • A Pew Research Center survey explores the political leanings of Cuban-Americans.

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