Cuba and the U.S. were once close to sparking a global nuclear war. Former Cuban President Fidel Castro nationalized all businesses in his country after taking power, prompting the United States to close its embassy in Havana in 1961 and impose a crippling embargo. Later that year, the U.S. tried to overthrow Castro in a failed coup known as the Bay of Pigs incident.
Castro then turned to the Soviet Union for help, setting off decades of mistrust between Washington and Havana.
It wasn’t until 2012, when Raúl Castro took over power from his ailing brother Fidel Castro, that Cuba suggested normalizing relations with the United States. U.S. President Barack Obama responded by easing some restrictions on financial transactions with Cuban parties and kick-starting talks in January.
Not everyone is on board with the president’s strategy, but many are optimistic about better relations between the two countries.
During Al Jazeera America's Sunday night segment The Week Ahead, Lisa Fletcher spoke to Christopher Sabatini, the founder and editor-in-chief of the website Latin America Goes Global, and Paul Bonicelli, a former assistant administrator at USAID.
Bonicelli said that he does not agree with Obama’s approach on the negotiations. “The president hasn’t really required concessions from this government,” he said. “The Castro brothers are running a dictatorship, and you would think that the president would require at least some movement on politics, on economics and on our national security interests before he’s willing to give them everything. He could have gotten a lot of Republican support for that kind of negotiation, but he hasn’t asked for anything in return.”
Sabatini said, however, that the Cuban government made changes even before Obama’s announcement in December to begin negotiations. “Right now Cuba has far fewer political prisoners than it has had in decades,” he said. “Detentions and harassment continue, but there have also been economic reforms. There were over 400,000 entrepreneurs that Cuba’s allowing to help grow the economy and help bolster socialism. That’s been really important in creating some space for civic activism.”
Bonicelli disagreed, saying “entrepreneurial activity is not up in Cuba. In fact, the number is down over the years because the Cuban government has been more talk than action. I think the president missed a great opportunity to sit down with Congress and get a bipartisan deal.”
Sabatini said that there is a better chance for success with diplomatic negotiations. He said, “Cuba hasn’t been engaging in sponsoring terrorism for decades. In fact, it is sponsoring a peace negotiation between the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] guerrillas and the Colombian government, one of our allies.”
When asked how opening U.S. trade with Cuba would be different from what Canada and Europe have been doing with the island for decades, Sabatini said “neither of them is 90 miles off the coast of Cuba, and neither of them have close to 2 million Cubans living on their shores.” He added that once the Castro brothers are out of power, “we need to be engaged in Cuba. We cannot risk having that regime collapse without us having some sort of stake in its present if we want to have a role in the future.”