At a minute past midnight exactly one year ago, the United States and Cuba finally put the Cold War behind them and resumed diplomatic relations, opening a new chapter for the former adversaries. But there are still lingering problems between the two neighboring nations.
Early that morning of July 20, 2015 in a State Department lobby, the Cuban flag joined the flags of other nations with which the United States has diplomatic relations and later that day the Cubans held a ceremony marking the conversion of their interests section in Washington, D.C. into a full-fledged embassy after a gap of 54 years.
Almost a month after the resumption of diplomatic ties, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry went to Havana to preside over the official flag-raising at the U.S. Embassy — an event witnessed by the three former marine guards who lowered the flag on Jan. 3, 1961.
“We are certain that the time is now to reach out to one another, as two peoples who are no longer enemies or rivals, but neighbors,” Kerry said shortly before the stars and stripes ran up the flag pole outside the embassy.
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But despite a presidential visit, an agreement on resuming commercial flights, many meetings on issues of mutual concern, resumption of direct mail service, sports and cultural exchanges, the first cruise from Miami to Cuba in more than 50 years, and the introduction of U.S. credit cards to the island, analysts say Cuba has been slow on the uptake of some of the Obama administration initiatives.
Some see tremendous progress in the relationship; others had hoped that more might be accomplished at this point, especially in the economic realm.
“In spite of our differences with the Cuban government, the policy is working. We’ve made significant progress since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations,” said a senior State Department official Wednesday. “We’re moving in the right direction in our bilateral relations with the Cuban government and our relationship with the Cuban people and we have the support of the majority of the American people.”
But some are disappointed that the past year hasn’t brought more tangible progress for the Cuban people.
“I had expected the U.S. extending its hand would have allowed more confidence for the future, but this really hasn’t changed much for them [the Cuban people],” said Pepe Hernández, president of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). “After so much work, such effort, so much pain, now we’re like that book says Waiting for Snow in Havana (an autobiographical book by Carlos Eire).”
The administration, for example, has loosened the rules for U.S. businesses to engage with private entrepreneurs on the island, now permits U.S. companies to have a physical presence on the island, allows American telecom companies to enter into partnerships with the Cuban government and has removed restrictions on payment and financial terms for authorized exports and reexports to Cuba.
And there are visible signs of the new business relationship: Airbnb’s growth in the Cuban home hospitality business, the recent rebranding of a refurbished Havana hotel as a Four Points by Sheraton in partnership with the Cuban government, telephone roaming agreements, and the ability to use credit cards issued by Florida-based Stonegate Bank at some state hotels and restaurants.
But many U.S. companies that have made proposals to Cuba under the new rules say they are still waiting for Cuban approvals.
“It’s definitely a mixed result,” said Carlos Saladrigas, a pro-engagement Miami business executive. “On one hand, everyone had reason to think Cuba would take advantage of the changes. They didn’t.”
He said he had hoped the Cuban government would allow Cuba’scuentapropistas — the self-employed — to operate more freely and take advantage of the new rules allowing U.S. businesses to engage with private Cuban entrepreneurs. “It’s the only segment of the economy, besides tourism, that is working but they close their eyes and refuse to see this.
“Obama has said he would allow electricity to flow to the outlet, but it is up to the Cubans to plug in,” said Saladrigas.
The State Department official said the United States has continued to urge Cuba to make it less difficult for Cubans to start a business, engage in trade and have access to information online.
There’s also a mismatch between the investment opportunities that Cuba wants to prioritize vs. the areas where the U.S. government permits American businesses to invest, said Alana Tummino, who heads the Americas Society/Council of the Americas Cuba working group.
Now with Venezuelan largesse drying up for Cuba, it would seem that Cuba might be more willing to entertain U.S. proposals: “The Cuban economy can’t really do well without taking advantage of the huge market of the United States,” said Peter Hakim, president emeritus and senior fellow of the Inter-American Dialogue.
He said the main dangers to the rapprochement process at this point are a tendency for the United States to be impatient when it undertakes a new foreign policy initiative and Cuba’s resistance to change and insistence on control.
“These two tendencies are in conflict with each other,” Hakim said.
Perhaps the most progress in the relationship has been made on the engagement front with President Barack Obama leading the way with his ground-breaking trip to Cuba in March. It was the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to Cuba in nearly 90 years.
“It was a huge success on the ground,” said Tummino, who was in Havana for the visit. “It resonated with the Cuban people and I think his speech to the Cuban people is one that we all will remember for a long time.”
The impending resumption of commercial airline service to Cuba after some five decades of being grounded is another major milestone, she said. The first flights to cities outside the capital are expected to resume in September and flights to Havana later in the year.
“Commercial airline service will not only support the new policy of engagement but it also allows a normal relationship with Cuba, like with any other country, where you’re able to go online and book your airline ticket,” Tummino said.
New rules that make cultural exchanges easier mean there will be a major Cuban exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in the fall and that six feature films produced in Cuba will be shown in 10 U.S. cities and the Sundance Film Festival will screen two films in Cuba next year. The Smithsonian will feature Cuba in its 2017 Folklife Festival.
Sports exchanges have even brought the likes of Shaquille O’Neal to Havana to bounce around basketballs with Cuban kids in his role as a State Department sports envoy.
But many difficult roadblocks remain as the United States and Cuba continue on the path to normalization.
When Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez made his first visit to Washington last July for the reopening of the embassy, he said that only if the U.S. ends the economic embargo on the island, returns the Guantánamo military base and respects Cuba’s sovereignty “will the historic event we are witnessing today make any sense.”
Despite the establishment of a bilateral commission to systematically work toward normalization, little progress has been made on thorny issues such as settling claims for confiscated property, migration, the return of fugitives from justice wanted by both countries, and respect for human rights.
“Pro-democracy advocates, like the Ladies in White, are regularly detained and arrested for daring to exercise their right to free speech,” said South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
“Normalization is a long-term process,” said the senior State Department official. “Human rights, property claims and the return of fugitives from U.S. justice are complex and thorny issues but we’re making slow and steady progress.”
The official said the two sides are working on scheduling another meeting on human rights issues.
But there has been progress on a number of issues.
While there is still a travel ban that doesn’t allow Americans to go to Cuba for tourism a much larger percent of Americans can visit for “purposeful travel.” Cuba and the United States also have explored ways to cooperate on counterterrorism, development and disaster response and environmental and marine protection agreements have been signed.
With embassies now open, it also has changed the way diplomats carry out their business — but not enough to satisfy some critics.
After months of discussions on conditions to reopen the embassies, negotiators agreed that diplomats from both countries would have greater freedom to travel and engage with the people of each nation.
But Mauricio Claver-Carone, one of the founders of the pro-embargo U.S.-Cuba Democracy Pact and executive director of Cuba Democacy Advocates, said he has “yet to see U.S. embassy personnel visiting the provinces regularly, let alone to visit democracy activists.”
In contrast, he said, “Castro regime officials are traveling throughout the U.S., propagandizing, lobbying against U.S. policy and being given visas without hesitation.”
Since the resumption of diplomatic ties, Cuban Ambassador José Ramón Cabañas has traveled extensively across the United States, attending conferences and speaking to various groups. He often tweets about his experiences and new developments in the Cuba-U.S. relationship.
Ros-Lehtinen said she wishes U.S. embassy personnel would engage in more outreach: “U.S. pro-democracy advocates have complained that they have less access to the embassy and their visas are being denied, even though Castro sympathizers have their visas granted,” she said.
And some exile activists complain that the United States has done little in the past year to further an agenda that includes respect for human rights in Cuba.
“We have yet to see how the embassy has helped promote human rights on the island better, amid growing repression. To the contrary, the silence is deafening,” said Claver-Carone.
Tens of thousands of Cubans also continue to leave the country — either by taking to the sea or risking a perilous overland journey through Latin American countries to reach the United States.
Some note that with the new status between the United States and Cuba, they’re fearful of the potential end of preferential migration policies for Cuban such as the Cuban Adjustment Act and the wet foot/dry foot policy, which allows Cubans who set foot on U.S. soil to remain while those interdicted at sea are generally returned to the island.
Hernández said he sees little chance that preferential status for Cubans will survive the next presidency — regardless of who wins.
The high numbers of Cuban migrants indicate they fear a change in U.S. immigration policy for Cubans and see little hope that their lives will change at home, Hernández said: “I think things in Cuba have turned a notch for the worse in the past year. There is so much uncertainly. Another exodus — a big exodus — is my concern now.”
Still, Saladrigas said the renewal of diplomatic relations “has been incredibly positive all in all” — even though he had hopes more would be accomplished.
Despite his displeasure at the speed of Cuban economic reforms, Saladrigas said he still gives a lot of credit to Raúl Castro for forging a new relationship with the United States.
“I think it was a bold move — and a move not liked by some political elites in Cuba,” he said. “I speculate that Raúl clearly understood that this was the one really hard nut that had to be cracked, and he couldn’t leave it to his successor.”