Spotlight: Three years later, Cuba-U.S. thawing relations rolled back to tension

Source: Xinhua| 2017-12-18 18:00:33|Editor: Zhou Xin
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HAVANA, Dec. 17 (Xinhua) -- Three years have elapsed since the historic simultaneous announcement by Cuban leader Raul Castro and former U.S. President Barack Obama to end more than half a century of enmity and begin the normalization process of relations based on mutual respect.

Both nations then started a path leading to reestablishment of formal diplomatic links, opening of embassies and creation of bilateral agenda to address issues of common interest.

In the last two years of the Obama administration, great progress was made in ties between Havana and Washington, including three meetings between leaders of the two countries, 25 high-level visits in both directions and the creation of the Cuba-U.S. Bilateral Commission.

"During that time, the two countries signed 22 cooperation agreements,held 54 technical meetings and launched actions on topics of mutual interest," Josefina Vidal, director general for U.S. affairs in Cuba's Foreign Ministry, said at a recent academic conference on Cuba-U.S. relations.

Important issues for Cuba were also resolved such as the island's exclusion from U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, the elimination of the so-called "wet foot-dry foot" migration policy which granted preferential migratory status to Cubans, and the renewal of the registration of the Havana Club rum brand in the U.S.

During those 24 months U.S. visitors to Cuba grew exponentially and the first economic-commercial agreements were concluded in more than 50 years.

"In those two years it was demonstrated that Cuba and the U.S. can try to build a new type of relationship, based on respect and equality, while recognizing existing differences which don't have to be the main issue in our ties," stressed Vidal.

However, that chapter did not last long and soon after Donald Trump's inauguration earlier this year, his administration significantly disrupted the progress and reversed the Cuba policy initiated by his predecessor.

The rollback had its first expression last June when Trump announced to a group of Cuban exiles in Miami and fierce opponents to the two countries' honeymoon, his decision to unilaterally end thawing relations.

In that speech, the U.S. president conditioned the rapprochement with Havana on a political change in the Caribbean nation.

Trump reaffirmed he would maintain the embargo as an essential pressure policy against this Caribbean nation and a future government that will succeed President Raul Castro.

"It was clearly evidenced the U.S. government's policy in the future would not be to normalize bilateral ties, but to return to the old failed strategy of intensifying the blockade (embargo) and subversion against Cuba," Vidal said.

"There have been lots of gains in this three years but they are now in jeopardy because not only the tone in U.S. policy towards Cuba has changed since Obama left the presidency but also a series of steps have been taken to bring down the bridges that were built," Peter Kornbluh, a prominent expert at George Washington University in the U.S. capital, told Xinhua.

Effective as of November, the measures make Cuba the only country in the world that U.S. citizens cannot visit as tourists and that prohibits U.S. companies from having commercial exchanges with 179 Cuban holdings and firms associated with the armed forces or security and intelligence agencies.

"I think it has to be companies, organizations, institutions making Cuba a priority for this administration. It is interesting that 70 percent of the American people would like to see the process of normalization move forward," said Carlos Gutierrez, former U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

Faced with this evident setback, U.S. businessmen continue to lose ground and business opportunities, while Cuba seeks to expand foreign investment.

"Cruises from the United States are coming, U.S. airlines have regular flights and an American company manages a hotel in Havana, but that's about it. Meanwhile, we see lots of Chinese and European investment and brands in Cuba," added Gutierrez, who participated in the recent academic workshop.

According to official figures, during the first months of this year, trips from the United States to Cuba showed a significant increase compared to the same period of 2016.

"Between January and November of this year, 579,288 Americans visited Cuba for a 248.7 percent growth compared to 2016, while 386,388 Cubans living in the United States traveled to the country for an increase of 140 percent," said Vidal.

However, in recent weeks there has been a noticeable slowdown, due to the combined impact of a State Department warning urging U.S. citizens not to visit the island and the Trump administration's measures against travel.

"Three years ago, Presidents Obama and Castro announced a historic breakthrough and what has happened in recent months is a government effort to sabotage those achievements that have been beneficial for both countries," added Kornbluh, author of numerous books regarding the diplomacy between Havana and Washington.

Added to this setback too is a crisis caused by alleged "acoustic attacks" against U.S. diplomatic personnel in the Caribbean nation that led Washington to substantially reduce the functions of the U.S. embassy in Havana and withdraw more than half of its officials.

Given the lack of personnel, Washington suspended all types of visa issuance so that Cubans could in no way emigrate or visit the United States, a measure that has provoked the broadest rejection in the island.

In retaliation, the State Department decided to expel 17 officials from the Cuban Embassy in Washington using the alleged incidents as a pretext and issued a travel warning urging U.S. citizens not to visit the island.

"It's such a self-defeating policy and it has proven for almost 60 years it hasn't done much," Gutierrez sentenced.