U.S.-Cuba Relations: The 90 Mile Dilemma

Seokhyun (Nathan) Baek, Writer

Cuba was a prosperous country in the 1950s, ranked fifth in per capita income and third in life expectancy among the western hemisphere. Cuba was home to democracy and rights, yet, by 2000, all of this had disappeared. Authoritarians have strived for control under corruption. Influenced by communism, Cuba shifted towards a larger political reform that led to plummeting quality of life (QoL) levels. Additionally, relations fundamentally changed with the United States, which stood as the beacon of democratic values.

Cuba’s geographic location has been a double-sided threat (both the East and West), particularly in the Cold War era. Cuba gained a good grip to obtain substantial aid from the Soviet bloc despite American presence underway, citing an existential threat to the communist bloc. This communist coalition relationship with the U.S. deteriorated throughout time (1962 Cuban missile crisis). Despite recent efforts to foster diplomatic negotiations, Cuba continues as a proxy (or close friend) to the Russian bloc — hostile to the West. Russia made minimal but significant actions to reignite relations with Cuba, while China increased its aid toward Cuba. This history has been well reflected in American public opinion, although Americans have become increasingly polarized in their views of Cuba in recent years.

The prospect of nuclear warfare has significantly diminished since the 1960s, but the possible Cuban proxy continued to threaten American interests; unfortunately, solving the tense situation via diplomacy is problematic. In recent years, the Cuban bureaucracy neglects human rights, suppresses opposition, and fails to recover fundamental needs for its people, despite the transition of power from the totalitarian (total power) Castro brothers to a more moderate administration. American and multilateral engagement has been made more difficult after the Sino-Soviet bloc refused to respond. Nevertheless, it is crucial to consider the consequences of Cuba’s failure in ensuring democratic rights; it is still the U.S.’s interest to achieve common ground with Cuba — not limiting to reaffirming the potential threat of geopolitical dispute —  but also to enable mutual and global interaction. American foreign policy has reflected this dilemma throughout its history, combating authoritarianism. In the context of Cuba’s challenging situation, it is possible to combat both burdens as their commerce advances incentives for preserving mutual relations.

Amid the Cold War, Cuba continued its hostile relations towards the U.S., echoing its communist allies’ stance of non-compliance. Although the Castro brothers continued to find allies away from the U.S., Cuba’s relations with the USSR slowly declined after the Sino-Soviet Split; even still, the USSR’s presence remained. Cuba’s ties to authoritarian regimes remained a threat to America less than a hundred miles away, affirming Soviet influence.

Throughout the 1980s, the driving force that led to communist success began to crack. Opposition emerged victorious throughout Europe on a much more widespread scale amid the recession resulting from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. This economic recession was inevitable for Cuba as well; the 1990 trade agreement asserted the deteriorating economic influence of the USSR. Finally, in September 1991, Cuba was left void of Soviet protection after pressure from the U.S., virtually ending the Cuban threat to the U.S. The Yeltsin administration continued to withdraw vital aid, including favorable trade terms that Cuba considered essential to its relationship with the recently-defunct Soviet Union.

Even in light of the Soviet collapse, the U.S. failed to zero in on Cuba and bring it under American influence. Moreover, Congress tightened sanctions on Cuba through the Cuban Democracy Act in 1992. Despite witnessing the instability of authoritarian policies, Fidel Castro sustained his authoritarian bureaucracy over three decades; he had no interest in renouncing prior trends and turned down the U.S. Other countries put their efforts into filling the void left by the USSR, notably the socialist-dominated Venezuela. Venezuela was uniquely positioned with its prosperous economic system and its regime set on decreasing reliance on the West.

As a result of Cuba’s relationship with the U.S., the U.S.’s opportunity to bring Cuba back into its sphere of influence diminished. Although Cuba’s economic failure was ripe for the U.S., the U.S. manifested its stricken stance with the 1996 Helms-Burton Act: isolating Cuba on its violations of fundamental freedoms. The act was a response to Cuba’s assault on two American planes, giving Castro no choice to associate with countries against liberal world order.

Even as the American embargo devastated Cuban society, Cuba continued in authoritarian order despite the transition of power. Cuba remains at-risk economically. Today, Cuba’s leadership has become even more complex, pushing the U.S. to appeal for change. Human rights problems persist as a hot topic for negotiations, and the U.S. lost opportunities for potential partnerships. History shows that American interventions decrease Cuban productivity, further complicating the future of U.S.-Cuba relations.