U.S.-Cuba Relations: The Beginning of a Long Thaw?

author: Wayne Smith, Center for International Policy
author: Julia E. Sweig, Council on Foreign Relations
published: Jan. 28, 2013,   recorded: September 2009,   views: 2379

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To the dismay of these seasoned Cuba specialists, the Obama administration is not pursuing a rapid thaw in relations with the Castro regime. While there appears no speedy end to 50 years of icy antipathy toward Cuba, the speakers detect a few hopeful signs of warming in recent times.

Wayne Smith has seen opportunities for a real bilateral relationship come and go. He first went to Cuba in 1958, just before the U.S. broke off diplomatic relations. He was among the first to go back in 1977 when Jimmy Carter attempted to reopen channels for discussion. Smith left the foreign service in 1982 after Reagan was elected, and had great hopes that Clinton would soften the U.S. stance following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But Cuban exiles in the U.S. succeeded in retaining a hard-line policy against Cuba. Smith says, “Here we are again: another opportunity.” It’s in the best interest of the U.S., says Smith, to begin “a mature relationship” with Cuba. He thinks the window is open a crack now. He knows many Cuban-Americans whose families lost property, or had relatives imprisoned, and “50 years later have come around to say, it’s time to begin talking.”

We may be entering “an interesting period of change” following a half century of “abnormal, unnatural relations,” says Julia Sweig. A few years ago, on the heels of Fidel Castro’s illness, Cuba initiated a “significant reform agenda.” In a record-short (34 minute) inaugural speech, Castro’s appointed successor, brother Raul, “implied awareness of the intense unhappiness on the island,” announcing proposed internal travel freedoms, and discussing agrarian and currency reform. “He sounded often more like Margaret Thatcher than Karl Marx,” says Sweig. But this fledgling effort to expand opportunities for Cubans was derailed in 2008 by three devastating hurricanes, the collapse of world commodity and financial markets, and Fidel Castro’s recovery (he’s “notoriously allergic to the market,” Sweig says).

There is some reason for optimism beyond Cuba. Sweig perceives a major shift in public opinion among Cuban-Americans, especially the young cohort that helped vote in Obama. There’s a prevailing sense that the embargo has failed, and that America should completely lift its travel ban. And the Obama administration has indicated a slight softening toward Cuba, permitting family remittances, and signaling that it might allow American telecom companies to do business in Cuba.

Sweig believes “this glacial, almost like walking through peanut butter pace of change that we have in bilateral relations suits each government just fine.” She concludes with a genuine bright spot: the September ‘09 Havana concert by Colombian musician Juanes, which demonstrated that the U.S. and Cuba can have meaningful contact with each other “without governments getting in the way.”

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