The Failure of U.S. Attempts at Unilateral Rapprochement with Cuba
Nearly every U.S. President since John F. Kennedy has tried to improve U.S. relations with Cuba. Some administrations halted these efforts when it was clear the Castros were unwilling to take any action towards rapprochement. Other administrations unilaterally liberalized U.S.-Cuba policy. Yet, Communist Cuba has continually rejected these efforts, responding in ways injurious to U.S. interests.
Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford began secret talks with the Cuban government. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s negotiating philosophy was clear “we are moving in a new direction; we’d like to synchronize…steps will be unilateral, reciprocity is necessary.” (1) The U.S. did not then set human rights and democratization preconditions. In March of 1975, Kissinger announced that the U.S. was “ready to move in a new direction” with Cuba and wanted to normalize relations with the island. However, the man who was able to bring rapprochement between the U.S. and China, was unable to do the same with Cuba. Cuba’s unambiguous rejection came by way of Cuban troops being deployed to Angola. Ford announced that Cuban military intervention in Angola would prevent full diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S. Cuba responded by sending more troops to Angola.
In 1977, President Jimmy Carter was eager to normalize U.S.-Cuba policy and ignored Cuba’s military presence in Angola. Carter liberalized travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba. and signed a maritime boundary and fishing rights accord. However, the State Department announced that Cuba’s deployment of military advisers to Ethiopia would prevent further rapprochement. Carter continued, undeterred, and the two countries opened Interest Sections in Washington D.C. and Havana. Over the next few years, the Cuban government sent almost 20,000 troops to Ethiopia, demanded that the U.S. military leave Guantanamo Bay, supported the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and in April of 1980, launched the Mariel Boatlift into President Carter’s lap.
The Reagan Administration came into office desiring improved relations with Cuba, but soon recognized the futility of trying to ingratiate itself to the Cuban government. Cuba continued to support insurgencies and terrorist groups around the world. Most notably, U.S. troops confronted Cuban troops in Grenada in 1983. The U.S. tightened its Cuba policy until President Bill Clinton entered office.
Clinton attempted to engage Cuba on bilateral issues such as counter-narcotics measures, establishing modern telecommunications links, and opening news bureaus on the island. Cuba responded by launching a Balsero Crisis. This forced the U.S. into negotiations with the Cuban government that led to a U.S.-Cuba Immigration Accord, allowing a minimum of 20,000 Cubans a year to enter the U.S. as permanent residents. The Wet-Foot, Dry-Foot policy followed. In February 1996, Cuban MiGs shot down two Brothers to the Rescue planes killing three U.S. citizens and one resident over international waters. The Clinton Administration halted its efforts at liberalization because of this unprecedented act of aggression and Congress passed the Helms-Burton Law, the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act in response. In 1999, Clinton unilaterally expanded travel to Cuba for U.S. residents and Cuban-American families, but given Cuba’s lack of response, did not take further efforts at rapprochement.
President George W. Bush left U.S.-Cuba policy untouched until the Black Cuban Spring of 2003. Following the arrest and long sentences for 75 dissidents, Bush restricted travel and remittances to the island in 2004 and took no known efforts to liberalize relations. U.S.-Cuba policy stayed frozen until President Barack Obama came into office.
Obama entered the Oval Office having made promises to liberalize Cuba policy. His Administration swiftly lifted restrictions on Cuban-American travel to Cuba as well as remittances sent to the island. Cuba’s response was to arrest a U.S. citizen. Alan Gross was working as a USAID subcontractor, providing Jewish groups in the island with communications equipment. He was tried and sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban jail. The U.S. government said Gross’s incarceration would prevent further liberalization. Various notable personalities have travelled to Cuba seeking Gross’s release, including President Jimmy Carter and Governor Bill Richardson, but these efforts have all failed. Despite Gross’s continued incarceration, in 2011, Obama also liberalized “people-to-people” travel, allowing more university, religious, and cultural programs to travel to Cuba.
History demonstrates that unilateral U.S. efforts have had, and are having, no impact on Cuba’s leadership. On the contrary, the Cuban government has interpreted U.S. openings towards Cuba as signs of weakness, which have resulted in Cuba’s hostility towards the U.S. and in some instances, in reckless actions such as Mariel and the Balsero Crisis.
Improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba is a laudable goal, but to be successful, Cuba must be a willing participant. Cuba has an unambiguous pattern of harming U.S. interests when the U.S. has engaged in attempts of unilateral rapprochement. If the U.S. would like to protect its interests, it should demand that Cuba take the first step in any future efforts to improve relations between the two countries and offer irreversible concessions.
1) Kornbluh, Peter and James G. Blight, “Dialogue with Castro: A Hidden History.” The New York Review of Books. October 6, 1994.
*Vanessa Lopez is a Research Associate at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami. She is currently pursuing a Law Degree at Emory University in Atlanta.