US-Cuba detente likely to lead to repeal of trade embargo

One of the first steps will be the removal of the Caribbean republic from the annual US terror list

The sudden shift in US policy toward Cuba represents the decline of a previously unquestioned conviction – that beneath the calm surface of Cuban society lies a seething, discontented population impatiently awaiting the signal to rise and overthrow their government.

There are no death squads or disappeared in Cuba and the most significant human rights abuses recorded on the island in recent years have taken place in Guantánamo Bay, a small corner of Cuba still occupied by US marines.

The Cuban revolution has survived through a combination of welfare provision and selective repression as the equal distribution of scarce resources meets the iron fist of state power. The brief trial and swift execution of ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista’s henchmen in 1959, brutal as it was, was a one-off response to popular anger.

The revolution distributed land and built schools, reduced the price of food and rents, while also developing a health system which remains the envy of the Americas. Critical indicators of life expectancy and infant mortality rival the wealthiest countries in the world.


There are now 50,000 Cuban doctors and nurses working in 60 countries, part of an overseas medical programme which has drawn reluctant praise from the country’s harshest critics.

Revolutionary leader Che Guevara described the main task of the new government as that of proving to its neighbours that a well-managed socialist regime could deliver better economic results than its US-backed rivals.

Beyond Cuba, the revolution sparked a political earthquake as the triumph showed that a handful of rebels could overthrow a US-backed dictator, routing his army along the way.

Cuba came under attack long before the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, with bombs dropped over Havana and bazooka attacks from boats, all originating in the US just 90 miles away.

Cuba joined the Soviet fold and enjoyed financial subsidies which filled gaps in declining output, but the 1990s saw a period of economic hardship which stretched patience to the limit. There was general hunger for the first time since the revolution triumphed and a “zero fuel” option as oil became unaffordable.

The election of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in 1999 provided a vital breathing space as Cuba began to receive oil on steeply discounted terms.

Yet every spare minute is spent trying to resolver and inventar, to resolve immediate needs and invent whatever is missing. Most Cubans turn to illegal purchases on the black market to cover their basic needs but with average monthly salaries of €25, the state of crisis is permanent. Corruption has become a major grievance and even the legendary health system works better for those who can afford to grease the palms of the establishment.

Active opposition remains the preserve of a small number of well-known dissidents. On December 10th, International Human Rights Day, dozens of peaceful activists were detained, while Cuba’s Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation – an independent human rights group the government views as illegal – says that an average of 764 citizens have been arrested for political reasons each month this year.

Most are released within hours or days but an estimated 110 political prisoners remain behind bars. Opposition activists face “acts of repudiation” by organised government mobs and severe limits on travel and work options in a country where the state still holds virtually all the levers of power.

Cuba’s president Raúl Castro, who replaced his brother Fidel in 2006, has overseen a slow but steady reform process. Some half a million Cubans now work for themselves, running hairdressers, restaurants and workshops. Earlier this month, the first independent media outlet was recognised while a foreign investment law has opened the door to increased international trade.

Russia's president Vladimir Putin cancelled Cuba's outstanding debts while China's leader Xi Jinping announced a raft of agreements in technology and infrastructure during an official visit.

Latin America's wave of progressive governments have brought Cuba in from the diplomatic cold. The political transition in Venezuela which followed Chavez's death in 2013 was negotiated in Havana, where peace talks are currently taking place between Colombian officials and Farc rebels.

The Community of Latin American and Caribbean nations, a bloc of 33 nations representing 600 million people, was launched in December 2011 without US involvement. The new group has focused on economic and political integration, with Cuba hosting the 2014 summit in January, a major diplomatic coup.

The days when Cuba sponsored armed struggle overseas are long gone and one of the first steps in the US-Cuban détente will be the repeal of Cuba’s inclusion on the annual US terror list, a prelude to a bigger prize – the repeal of the trade embargo.

The lifting of travel restrictions on US citizens could mean an extra $2 billion (€1.6 billion) for the Cuban economy while the end of the embargo would allow the export of cigars and coffee. The announcement of a relaxation in the sending of remittances to Cuba was greeted with joy – a tangible, immediate benefit.

“This is only the beginning,” cautioned Yoani Sanchez, Cuba’s best-known journalist, who insisted that reforms would only acquire relevance if they were accompanied by the release of political prisoners, the end of repression and the recognition of civil society beyond state control.