Blogs > Cuba Libre > What Would a Clinton Presidency Mean for U.S.—Cuban Relations?

Sep 5, 2016

What Would a Clinton Presidency Mean for U.S.—Cuban Relations?

tags: Hillary Clinton; President Obama; U.S.--Cuban Relations

Image by Cancillería Ecuador from Ecuador (60 aniversario del asalto al Cuartel Moncada) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Gonzalez is Assistant Professor of Global and Interdisciplinary Studies at Appalachian State University. 

For people like me who study the U.S. and Cuba, last week brought more hopeful news:  a U.S. airliner with passengers owned by JetBlue, flew from Fort Lauderdale to Santa Clara, the first such regularly scheduled flight in more than fifty years.

We owe this latest step in the so-called U.S.—Cuban Thaw to President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and other, less well-known diplomats who have braved much criticism, from Republicans in particular.  Those of us who study U.S.—Cuban relations could not be more grateful to them for tearing big holes in this last Iron Curtain in the Americas. 

 It’s therefore a good time to ask: What would a Clinton presidency mean for U.S.—Cuban relations?  Will Clinton continue the work of President Obama and Secretary Kerry? Will these direct flights continue?

 The answer is yes.  Hillary Clinton will no doubt carry on the work of Obama, Kerry, and others—and that is both good and bad news. 

 Let’s begin with the good. 

The U.S.—Cuban Thaw, though limited, has much to commend it.  Aside from easing travel between Cuba and the United States, it has also reduced tensions between two once-implacable adversaries. 

The Thaw has also opened up economic opportunities for Cubans. Yes, the blockade remains (and it will until the U.S. Congress ends it), but more U.S. tourists means more dollars pouring into Cuba, many of which will find their way into the hands of owners of cuentapropistas, private enterprises owned and operated by Cubans, most notably restaurants and casas particulares.

The Cuban economy now stands ready to grow substantially because of increased tourism from the U.S., despite the likelihood of sharp reductions in subsidies coming from Venezuela.  

The Thaw also provides an improved context for political liberalization in Cuba.  Simply put, the Castros would never have permitted increased dissent, so long as North Americans were at the door, and sometimes inside the house, trying to overthrow them. 

The parameters of free expression are also expanding, according to Cubans I know, though the pace remains slower than they would like. 

Certainly President Hillary Clinton will continue the U.S.—Cuban Thaw, much as she will honor Obama’s arrangement with Iran, and with a Democratic Senate, even the embargo’s days are numbered.  So things look good, right?

Well, yes and no:  yes . . . because President Clinton will continue President Obama’s work, and perhaps even expand on it.

But no . . . because at least one troubling pattern will persist, unchallenged by both President Obama and, probably, Hillary Clinton.

And it is this:  the U.S. government has, for better than century, felt free to tell the Cubans how to run their country.

This tendency surfaced during President Obama’s visit in April, when he met with Cuban dissidents, thanking them for their courage, and urged further democratic and economic reforms

How could that be bad, you ask?  Shouldn’t the U.S. government press dictatorships to reform themselves?  Shouldn’t the U.S. President praise those who stand up to tyranny?

Yes.  It should, and he should.  The United States government should criticize its adversaries (Russia), its allies (Saudi Arabia), and its frenemies (China), while holding itself to its own high standards. 

But Cuba is a special case--because for about sixty years, the United States government treated Cuba as a colony. 

From 1898 to 1959, Cuba, though formally independent, was not sovereign. After the Spanish—American War, the McKinley administration demanded that the Cubans make themselves subservient to U.S. political and economic interests—or forgo even formal independence.

And so Cuba remained part of the U.S. Empire, until the triumph of the Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro. 

Sadly, most North Americans do not remember this. But the Cubans do. And they remember much else.

They remember that after the Revolution, the U.S. government waged economic warfare against the Cubans, hoping to coerce Fidel Castro into respecting U.S. interests, or provoke the Cubans into overthrowing him. 

They also remember that after the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy administration sponsored a campaign of terrorism, directed at the Cuban government and economy. 

And then there is the embargo:  A set of economic regulations designed to punish all Cubans until the Castros leave power and make democratic reforms, codified in an Act of Congress

So when it comes to democracy, North Americans should know that they don’t have much credibility with their former colonial subjects, the Cubans, a fact that only makes sense. After all, would the Irish want to be told how to govern their country by the British? 

No they would not.  And neither do the Cubans.

My guess is that Hillary Clinton is too well informed not to know about this part of U.S.—Cuban history, unlike her opponent who seems to hold knowledge and expertise in contempt.

But at this point, I believe that Hillary Clinton will be unable to resist the temptation to lecture the Cubans about how and when they should democratize. It’s just too much a part of the North American political culture.

What is more, her fellow politicians, Republicans and Democrats, will demand that she treat the Cubans liked wayward children, and Clinton will not want to look as if she is bowing to dictators. 

And so the Hillary Clinton administration will probably be very much like Obama’s when it comes to Cuba.  And that’s more good news than bad to be sure--but it’s still far from the “reset” that needs to happen if we are to transcend this tortured, post-colonial relationship. 


In my next blog posting, I will offer some unsolicited advice to the next president as to what the U.S. government’s Cuban policy should be.  

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