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What’s next for the great Cuba-U.S. thaw?

Diplomatic talks continue in Havana this week. What can we expect next?

By: /
16 March, 2015
By: Keith Bolender
Freelance journalist

On December 17, Barack Obama and Raul Castro simultaneously announced their intentions to re-establish diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, with the expectation of full normalization between the two countries in the future.

Since that historic announcement, there have been two sets of meetings, one in Havana and the other in Washington, between top level officials to work out the details of normalization. There has already been a major roadblock – namely whether or not the United States will remove Cuba from the State Department list of states that sponsor terrorism – but the overall sentiment has been optimistic and respectful.

This is probably the most important shift in U.S.-Cuban relations since the triumph of the Cuban revolution back in 1959. What makes the new thaw so impressive is the fact that, for the past 50 plus years, there has been little but hostility between the two neighbours – in large part because of the United States’ long-standing policy of regime change.

This week, talks are expected to continue in Havana, with a meeting between Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson and the Cuban foreign ministry’s chief of U.S. affairs, Josefina Vidal, slated for Monday onwards.

So how will this normalization process proceed? A few questions and answers may help clarify things.

Can Obama lift the embargo against Cuba?

Technically he can’t, because the legal foundation for the embargo is in the hands of the U.S. Congress, codified to that branch of government in 1996 under Bill Clinton’s presidency. Previous to that, U.S. presidents could end the embargo with a stroke of a pen.

What Obama can do, however, is ease a considerable amount of the embargo’s regulations by using his authority to permit greater flexibility for American businesses to operate in Cuba, as well as allowing Cuban imports into the United States. Financial transactions between U.S. and Cuban institutions will now be allowed. There may still be the shell of the embargo under Congressional control, but Obama can hollow out the middle.

Of course, regardless of any easing of the embargo, American companies will still have to abide by Cuban laws regarding foreign investment and business operations.

Will American tourists be allowed to travel to Cuba?

As with the embargo, the travel restrictions on Americans who want to go to Cuba are under the control of Congress. Regular American tourists still won’t be able to get visas, but the U.S. will allow travel for people in 12 categories: family visits, government business, professional meetings and research, journalistic, educational and religious activities, attending performances, workshops or athletic competitions and exhibitions, humanitarian projects or other activities in support of the Cuban people. That will mean a greater number of Americans will be able to see Cuba for themselves under less restrictive classifications. It’s estimated that up to a million Americans will visit Cuba annually.

If Americans do start flocking to Cuba, there may be another group of tourists not so happy – Canadians. For years Canadian visitors have considered Cuba as their own, and many have expressed concern that if the Americans are allowed in, they might have to look for another beach destination. Those worries are unfounded however, as there is plenty of room for everyone.

What items will be on the agenda when the two sides talk about normalization?

The two countries will co-operate on issues such as migration, narcotics control, the environment, and human trafficking. There may even be discussion of allowing Cuban baseball players to come into the major leagues legally without having to defect. There is already talk of some major league teams holding spring training in Havana next year.

Why did Obama do this now?

Obama may see his Cuba policy as an integral part of his legacy. On the domestic front, it will be Obamacare; on foreign relations it could be Cuba. Other factors may have included the shifting demographics of the Cuban-American community living in Florida, where the younger generation is more in favour of normalization. Obama may have felt it was politically the right time to announce this.

Will Cuba end its anti-American rhetoric?

Under Raul Castro, the anti-American statements have decreased. He has often publically stated he’s willing to talk about any issue.

But don’t expect either party to suddenly become all warm and fuzzy. The path to normalization will be filled with criticisms and complaints from both sides. The ideological differences haven’t disappeared, only the intransigence.

Will Cuba change its political make up?

Very unlikely. When the United States ended that embargo on Vietnam and normalized relations more than 20 years ago, the Vietnamese didn’t do away with its socialist one-party system. Since then, Vietnam has become a regional economic powerhouse and a favoured trading nation with the U.S.

The political structure of the Cuban state will essentially remain the same, as long as the system has the support of the citizens – something the Americans have never understood since the revolution triumphed in 1959. Political changes will no doubt occur, however, when the first-generation revolutionaries die off or step down as Raul plans to do in 2018.

Will normalizing relations end Cuba blaming all its problems on the embargo?

That depends on how much the embargo is eased or ended and what affect it has. Cuba has often blamed its economic shortcomings on the United States, with a certain level of justification. The American embargo has been the longest in history and has cost the Cuban government billions. Combine that with the history of terrorist activities against Cuban civilian targets committed by Cuban-American organizations in Florida (often with the knowledge of the U.S. government), and the result has been the creation of a siege mentality among Cuban leadership.

End the embargo, normalize relations, give the Cubans space to follow their own path without the American hammer over their head, and the Cuban government shouldn’t have a reason to blame everything on U.S. hostility.

Will the United States remove Cuba from the State Department list of states that sponsor terrorism?

This is the roadblock to setting up the embassies in both capitals – the first step towards normalization. Cuba has been on the list since the early 1980s and they understandably insist that normalization can’t take place until they are taken off, which may happen this month. This is of great importance to the Cuban side, who state that they remain on the list purely for political reasons. If Obama does take Cuba off the list, and he can do it without Congressional impute, it will have an immediate impact – international banks would no longer be fined for doing business with Cuba and other financial restrictions will be lifted

What role did others play in bringing these two adversaries together?

Canada was able to provide secret meeting locations in Toronto and Ottawa for high ranking officials from both sides to sit down and work out this agreement. It most likely would have happened regardless, but Canada’s role certainly helped the process. And Pope Francis deserves credit as well for his part in bringing the two sides together.

What will Americans find out about Cuba if relations are normalized?

That the majority of Cuban people support their leadership. Cubans, like everybody, want to improve their lives, but they want to control any political or economic changes themselves, not have them imposed by an outside power that has tried to destroy their political/economic system for the past 50 years.

So what does the announcement of normalization really mean?

The United States hasn’t abandoned its strategy of ending the Castro regime. It’s just changed the approach from the stick to the carrot. Obama has the ability to accomplish a great deal towards eliminating most of America’s hostile policies against Cuba, but he cannot end everything.

Regardless, this is an historic shift in relations between the two countries. At the very least, the establishment of full diplomatic relations, the opening of embassies and the end to isolation is a new chapter in the relationship. Most importantly, it is tremendously positive for the citizens of both Cuba and the United States.

Keith Bolender is a Canadian based author of two books on Cuba-American relations and has been involved in Cuba for more than 25 years. He spoke to the Toronto Branch of the CIC at an event on March 11. For more on Toronto branch events, visit

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