We Know Why Obama Changed U.S. Policy Toward Cuba. But Why Did Cuba
Change Its Policy Toward the U.S.?
Matt Jacobs / History News Network @myHNN July 25, 2015
To understand the change we need to acknowledge that Castro has always
followed a policy of "revolutionary pragmatism"
History News Network
This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website
that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was
originally published at HNN.
The restoration of U.S. and Cuban diplomatic ties is quite an event,
particularly given the hostility that defined relations between the two
countries for so long. President Obama's decision to re-open an embassy
in Havana and Raul Castro's agreement to do the same in Washington
continues the thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations. The steps taken by both
countries have generated much publicity over the past few months.
Numerous U.S. media outlets have produced stories on the implications
for Obama's legacy and the potential fallout for 2016 presidential
candidates. As usual Washington politicians and pundits have focused
their attention on the reasons for the U.S. shift. Yet, it is not
President Obama's decision to seek a normalization that warrants the
most attention, but rather the Castro government's reasoning behind
their determination to chart a new course in U.S.-Cuban relations. In
fact, much more can be learned from concentrating instead on what is
behind the Cuban leadership's thinking.
Havana's recent decisions are deeply rooted in what can best be termed
as Cuba's "revolutionary pragmatism." Though the Castro government
continually speaks the language of revolutionary change, it also has
also taken a sensible view to foreign policy matters when necessary.
Such an approach has guided Cuban engagement with the world from the
1960s to the present.
"Revolutionary pragmatism" traces back to the very beginning of the
Castro regime. In the years immediately following the Cuban Revolution,
for example, a top issue in US-Cuban relations included Fidel Castro's
support for anti-US guerilla movements throughout Latin America. Castro
repeatedly challenged Latin Americans and others around the world to
stand up to the United States. He famously declared in 1962 that it was
"the duty of every revolutionary to make the revolution. In America and
the world, it is known that the revolution will be victorious, but it is
improper revolutionary behavior to sit at one's doorstep waiting for the
corpse of imperialism to pass by."
Yet, privately, Castro proved willing to develop a foreign policy based
on practical considerations. On a recent research trip to Cuba I gained
access to the Foreign Ministry Archive in Havana and was surprised at
what I found. Many detailed reports from the early 1960s discussed the
prospects for revolution in Central and South America, but concluded
that conditions were not ripe in many nations for radical change. This
reality led to a more pragmatic position being taken by leaders in
Havana as they approached Latin America.
The most documented aid came in the form of training young Latin
Americans in guerilla tactics who traveled to Cuba. As historian Piero
Gliejeses's excellent studies demonstrate, Castro turned his attention
to Africa as early as 1964. Havana's decision to abandon any large-scale
support for revolutionary groups in Latin America was not made due to a
lack of enthusiasm for challenging Washington's traditional sphere of
influence, but owed instead to practical considerations.
Similarly, in the 1980s when the Sandinista triumph in Nicaragua offered
Havana an ally in Latin America, Castro held to "revolutionary
pragmatism." He counseled Daniel Ortega not to antagonize elite economic
interests too much. On a visit to Managua, Castro even declared that
allowing some capitalism in the Nicaraguan economy did not violate
revolutionary principles. He bluntly told Nicaraguan leaders that they
did not have to follow the path taken by Cuba, "Each revolution is
different from the others."
Perhaps the greatest illustration of Cuban flexibility was the Castro
regime's response to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In June 1990,
after receiving word that aid from Moscow would no longer flow to
Havana, Fidel Castro announced a national emergency. He called his
initiative "the Special Period in Peacetime." Cuba welcomed foreign
investment, tourism, the U.S. dollar, and allowed small-scale private
businesses. While many prognosticators predicated a complete collapse of
the Castro regime, the revolutionary government endured due to its
ability to adapt.
Thus, recent developments must be viewed within their proper historical
context. As it has in the past, Castro's regime is pursuing
The impetus for changes in Cuba's approach owes to several reasons.
First, since the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013 Venezuela has become a
questionable economic ally. Political instability coupled with a
crumbling economy has likely caused Havana to view a key economic patron
in Caracas as increasingly unreliable. A complete breakdown of order in
Venezuela would greatly affect the Cuban economy in a negative way.
Thus, a better economic relationship with the United States is one way
of protecting the island from a changing relationship with Venezuela.
Other reasons for Cuba's rapprochement with the United States owe to
domestic concerns. Since taking power in 2008, Raul Castro has been open
to reforms in an attempt to make socialism work for the twenty-first
century. Over the last few years the Cuban government has relaxed
controls over certain sectors of the economy, but reforms have been slow
and halting. Anyone who has spent time in Havana cannot help but notice
the aging infrastructure and inefficient public transportation system. A
key to any reform agenda is attracting foreign investment, and the
United States stands as an attractive partner.
Furthermore, as Raul is poised to step down from power in 2018, Cuba is
starting to make preparations for a successful turnover. An improving
relationship with Washington may help his likely successor, Miguel
Díaz-Canel, better navigate the transfer. In sum, at this point and
time, normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations serves Havana's best interests.
It remains to be seen just how far the Cuban government will go
regarding changes in policy. Going back to 2010, Raul Castro declared
during a national address that "we reform, or we sink." His recent push
for renewed relations with the United States will likely create an
influx of U.S. tourists and more capital from American businesses. In
turn, this could place Cuba down the path of other communist nations who
embraced elements of capitalism, China and Vietnam notably. Just how far
Raul will go with his reform agenda remains to be seen.
Ultimately, a U.S.-Cuban thaw is a positive step. Antagonism between the
two countries serves no one, especially the Cuban people. Yet, we should
not see the recent shifts as merely Washington changing course. The
steps taken by Havana are equally important and should be viewed as part
of a long history of shrewd diplomacy. While Cuban foreign policy has
traditionally been revolutionary in rhetoric, it has proven once again
to be pragmatic in practice.
Matt Jacobs received his PhD in History from Ohio University in 2015.
This fall he will be a Visiting Assistant Professor of Intelligence
Studies and Global Affairs at Embry-Riddle's College of Security and
Intelligence. He has conducted research at the Cuban National Archive
and the Cuban Foreign Ministry Archive, both in Havana.
Source: We Know Why Obama Changed U.S. Policy Toward Cuba. But Why Did
Cuba Change Its Policy Toward the U.S.? | TIME -