A breakthrough in U.S.-Cuba relations may be in the offing. On June 14, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica delivered a letter from U.S. President Barack Obama to Cuban President Raul Castro, according to Uruguayan media June 20, containing an offer to begin talks on a variety of issues, most prominently Washington’s longstanding economic embargo. According to Uruguayan media, Obama had asked Mujica to help him improve relations with the island nation when Mujica was in Washington in mid-May. If the report is true, the transaction could be the first step toward reconciliation.
Cuba certainly has its reasons for entertaining such an offer. The country’s main benefactor, Venezuela, may no longer be in a position to support the Cuban economy. In fact, Venezuela is in the throes of a protracted economic crisis, which is owed partly to declining oil production. Since Cuba depends heavily on Venezuelan oil exports, it may soon have to look elsewhere for its energy needs. Castro was supposedly interested in Obama’s offer, provided that it did not necessarily impose conditions on Cuba, but given the situation in Venezuela, Castro would demand that the embargo be lifted in any negotiations.
Normalized ties would also benefit the United States, which is concerned with Russia’s attempts to improve relations with Latin America. Though the Cold War is over, Washington still does not want any country, let alone Russia, to establish too strong a presence in a country as geographically close as Cuba. That Havana is so close to Caracas may also help the United States make some political overtures to the government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, though Venezuela’s future stability and willingness to engage the United States largely depends on Maduro’s political support and the country’s economic conditions. However, Cuba’s influence in the Venezuelan military and intelligence organizations could facilitate future communication between Washington and Caracas.
Still, domestic considerations will delay any potential reconciliation between Cuba and the United States. Under the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, lifting the embargo and ending sanctions requires U.S. congressional approval, which hinges on a variety of issues, including human rights improvements and the election of a new government in Havana. Obama cannot simply approve an agreement to normalize relations with Cuba.
In any case, an agreement would have to be agreed upon by both sides — no small feat, given the decades of animosity between the two. In the United States, improved public opinion toward ending the embargo would help future negotiations, but opposition lawmakers could impede the government’s efforts. For its part, Cuba has been liberalizing its economy slowly for nearly four years, and the concerns some Cuban leaders have over opening up an erstwhile closed country could delay the pace of any talks.
Of course, both countries have ways of moving the negotiations forward if they wish. These include possible prisoner exchanges. In fact, Obama has already reportedly asked Cuba (via Uruguay) to release Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen held in Cuba since 2009 for subversive activity. Discussions over the release of prisoners would be a strong sign that a larger negotiation is imminent.