After the Flag Flying – Where do We Stand?

US-Cuba relations-embassiesFlags flying over the U.S. and Cuban embassies, symbolic of progress, but still a long way to go. Photo: Cuba Business Report staff.

Yesterday was the first year anniversary of the opening of the American and Cuban embassies in each others’ capital cities.  This anniversary commemorated the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the two nations.  But how slowly these things move.

It was a ‘great moment’ in history when the United States and Cuba decided to abolish one of the last vestiges of the Cold War and restore diplomatic ties frozen for more than 50 years.  But it’s a slow process, somewhat akin to watching an iceberg melt.  The national flags flying over the embassies in Washington and Havana.  It’s a symbolic gesture without a doubt.  It signifies change, it signifies a moving forward.  Oh, but how slowly these things change.

The United States and Cuba have made some progress.  After the announcement in December of  2014, the U.S. – Cuba talks began in January 2015. That the two countries were prepared to reestablish formal diplomatic relations brought a sense of optimism and hope, even jubilance.

President Barack Obama visited Cuba, the first president to do so since the 1920s.  He had an open forum in Cuba.  One has to wonder when President Raul Castro will be able to do the same.

No doubt, some things have changed.  Cruise ships from Miami set sail, destination Havana.  An American hotel corporation won a joint venture agreement to renovate and manage three hotels in the capital.  The categories under which Americans can travel to Cuba expanded.  Obama increased the allowable amount for remittances sent to CubaCommercial flights were approved by the U.S. Department of Transport.

The two nations completed an exchange of prisoners.  Cuba was removed from the U.S. list of state-sponsored terrorism – although it never should have been on the list in the first place.  Cuba removed all restrictions on visitors to the Island.  Official visits and business delegations traveled to Cuba.  The voice of Americans and American business who wished to move forward, grew.

A bilateral commission was established to discuss issues and remaining challenges between the two nations.  Three of these discussions have already taken place.  There are more to come in the future.

Ten cooperation agreements concerning the environment and environmental protection, law enforcement, drug trafficking, disaster prevention, search and rescue, and meteorology were signed between the U.S. and Cuba.

Josefina Vidal, Director General of the United States Department of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, said in an interview Wednesday on the Granma news site, “We have worked for many years to successfully change U.S. policy toward Cuba.”

But there are still obstacles blocking what could be a flourishing and prosperous relationship between these two countries.  The U.S. and Cuba are ‘natural’ trade partners because of proximity.  Certainly the embassies are open and their flags fly proudly in the wind.  But the American embargo, or blockade as the Cubans so call it, still remains.  Without lifting of the embargo, there is no real movement towards “normalization.”

American businesses are eager to begin trade with Cuba but they can’t.  Cuban funds are still frozen in New York.  Only one bank, Stonegate Bank is brave enough to do business with Cuba.  Other banks in the U.S. are terrified of the U.S. Treasury Department fines and honestly, who could blame them? Americans are still not allowed to travel freely as tourists to Cuba, though they can travel freely to very “un-touristy” destinations like North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

One of the most difficult challenges facing Cuba can be seen in the world of finance and banking.  Cuba is still not permitted to make financial transactions in US dollars. Funds are frozen in the U.S. and Cuba is unable to obtain credit.  American exporters and business interests are still forbidden to offer credit terms to Cubans, services for Cuban diplomatic missions around the world are denied, and both American and international banks face astronomical fines when they provide financial services to Cuba.

Havana wants the embargo lifted, the return of Guantanamo, the end of activities that encourage subversion, and the end of the Cuban Adjustment Act.

Both Cuba and the U.S. want compensation but that’s going to be a very long and complicated conversation.  Cuba wants compensation for the adverse damages to its economy.  The U.S. wants compensation for properties nationalized by the Cuban government.

The United States has tried hard for regime change in Cuba.  Most observers would admit that it is a policy which hasn’t worked.  What it has achieved however, is to create severe economic damage to Cuba and immense suffering for the Cuban people.  And life in Cuba is predicted to become even more difficult for the average Cuban because of the current economic crisis.

For certain, some progress has been made. The first sign of progress were those national flags flying in the wind over the embassies.   There is much more that needs to be done.  The whole world is watching and waiting.

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