The Riggs Report: Defrosting Cuba
Another Cold War chapter is closing
I recently spoke to a California attorney who had just returned from a business trip to Cuba during which he had advised government officials there about streamlining the country’s antiquated court system.
Everything is handled in Cuba by trial, not by settlement, he told me, leaving the court schedules hopelessly backed up. This attorney also described the time capsule nature of Havana, where residents and taxi drivers travel the streets in vintage American cars built in the 1950’s. It’s not a matter of nostalgia, but an economic reality of the U.S. embargo imposed after Fidel Castro overthrew the Cuban government.
That time capsule—and an important lingering chapter in the Cold War—is finally coming to a close with President Obama’s dramatic move this week to begin normalizing relations with Cuba.
That will eventually mean the opening of embassies in Washington and Havana.
Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement, saying he looked forward to being the first State Department chief to visit Cuba in 60 years.
“As we did with Vietnam, changing our relationship with Cuba will require an investment of time, energy and resources,” Kerry said. “Today’s step also reflects our firm belief that the risk and the cost of trying to turn the tide is far low than the risk and cost of remaining stuck in an ideological cement of our own making.”
The White House’s move to thaw diplomatic relations reflects the belief that the U.S. embargo has done little to advance American interests, while also making it nearly impossible to influence how Cuba will evolve once the Castro regime comes to an end.
But the economic impact of normalizing relations will be slow.
Although business travelers and those with Cuban family members will be able to get travel visas, that won’t be the case for ordinary tourists looking for a new vacation spot.
Restrictions remain in place for how many cigars and other consumer goods a visitor can bring home. And although the move is historically significant, it’s unclear how much political affect there will be in the 2016 presidential race.
Yes, the issue provides a clear line of difference between the two major parties.
Florida Republicans Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, both potential candidates, are sharply critical of the White House move, and say it removes U.S. leverage to demand the release of political prisoners and other reforms in Cuba.
Rubio, whose parents immigrated from Cuba in the 1950’s, said the move to normalize relations would have a “dramatic impact on the cost of freedom and democracy on the island.”
By contrast, likely Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, no longer opposes the lifting of the economic embargo on Cuba.
Civil rights and democratic reforms will continue to be a focus, Secretary Kerry acknowledged this week.
But for so many voters today, the Cuba situation—like the Cold War itself—is distant history.
Ask voters about national security concerns, and you’ll hear about Syria, Afghanistan, and Al-Qaeda, not about a communist island with a population of 11 million people in the Caribbean.
The conflict over Cuba, and restoring U.S. ties, is far from over. But it won’t be a top-tier issue in 2016.