12/21/2014 12:54 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2014

Cuba Announcement 'A Truly Historic Moment'


Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we look at the future of U.S.-Cuba relations.

The United States and Cuba announced on Wednesday that they will start talks to restore ties, a landmark announcement given the decades-long hostile relations between the countries.

The announcement came alongside a prisoner swap that includes a Cuban who was arrested on the island while working for American intelligence more than twenty years ago, and the three of the "Cuban Five" who remained jailed in the United States. Cuba also released Alan Gross, an American aid worker who was arrested in Cuba five years ago.

The WorldPost spoke with Julia E. Sweig of the Council on Foreign Relations about this week's developments.

Wednesday's announcement was hailed as "historic." But how much does the announcement really change? And how quickly will we start to see change?

The announcement truly was a historic moment, not only for the Americas, but also for Obama’s legacy. The executive action is fairly comprehensive in terms of what he has the power to make happen. It expands general licenses for travel to Cuba, allows travelers to use American credit and debit cards, significantly eases restrictions around remittances, make it easier for Americans to provide support to and help grow the emerging private sector in Cuba, expands commercial sales and exports, and initiates new efforts to increase access to the internet and other telecommunications services, among other important changes. Obama and Castro are also going to convert the existing interest sections into embassies in Havana and Washington and name ambassadors.

On the travel end, which I think has been the most confusing part for a lot of people, American visitors to Cuba will no longer have to go through cumbersome bureaucratic processes prior to their travel to the island. All they have to do is sign a document saying what they’re going to be doing in Cuba and then go. And that is a huge difference. It does not lift the travel ban because it doesn't permit tourism, but it does streamline travel and will help it grow quite substantially.

As far as how quickly these changes will take root, I think diplomatic ties will move fairly rapidly. The assistant U.S. secretary of state for Latin America, Roberta S. Jacobson, is leading a delegation to Cuba in January for immigration talks and to further conversations about diplomatic relations. However, the implementation of new economic openings is going to take some time. Various agencies will have to write and roll out regulations, which, of course, means bureaucracy and at least some politics. Though, I suspect that, given the Summit of the Americas in April and the upcoming shift in Congress, a lot of the regulatory framework that is needed to ease trade and travel restrictions is probably close to complete if not fully ready for primetime. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker already seems to be organizing a business delegation to Cuba, and I suspect Barack Obama and John Kerry will both make it to the island over the next two years. Can’t get more historic than that.

Will the embargo be lifted as well? And if so, when do you think that will happen?

Implementation of the steps the president announced Wednesday will create their own political momentum, not only in the United States and Cuba, but also in the U.S. Congress. However, officially lifting the embargo is an entirely different process that has to go through Congress due to the Helms-Burton Act signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996. Though we are on the verge of having a Republican majority in Congress, pollsters now see that 60 percent of Americans, including those in Florida, support the kinds of changes Obama announced on Wednesday. Staunchly supporting the embargo is getting less politically tenable, and both parties, yes even the GOP, are beginning to recognize that.

I think the expectation with Obama’s executive order is that it will help grow certain kinds of trade and investment in, for example, construction, pharmaceuticals, agriculture and telecommunications. This kind of investment, restoring diplomatic lines of communication, getting more Americans down to Cuba, and allowing banking services and credit cards – sort of laying the scaffolding to ultimately shift opinion inside Congress – will help create the political space to push for a full nullification of Helms-Burton to lift the embargo. Though, I do think that will take some time.

What concessions did the U.S. and Cuba have to make respectively to make this agreement happen?

I think the biggest negotiation that compelled these talks was the Alan Gross situation and the imprisonment of the remaining three of the Cuban Five, the intelligence officers who penetrated into the United States in the 1990s and were imprisoned in American jails. For Raul Castro, and even before his presidency, getting the rest of the Cuban Five back was a huge foreign policy priority. On the other hand, U.S. government officials repeatedly warned that if anything ever happened to Gross, reestablishing relations would be near impossible. I think a breakthrough in negotiations came when the Cuban government agreed to release Gross on humanitarian grounds, and exchange Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, an intelligence officer who the Cubans had been holding for the last twenty years or so, for the remaining three of the Cuban Five. It unlocked the policy changes the president announced on Wednesday.

There were also a number of other areas of compromise to get to where we are now. Raul agreed to release 53 political prisoners, all of whom were given the choice of staying in Cuba or leaving, rather than being given exile as their only option, and the Cuban government agreed to allow American telecommunications providers to help build the infrastructure that they need to increase broadband access, which is very low, perhaps even the lowest in Latin America. The Cubans also agreed to allow ICRC visits to the island, and they haven’t been there since the late 80s I believe.

Of course, a number of outstanding issues were not agreed upon during these conversations. For example, the U.S. government would not end its democracy promotion programs – a la the infamous Cuban Twitter – despite Cuban protest and did not include negotiation of the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in the conversations.

How have Cubans reacted to the announcement?

As far as I’ve seen, across Cuba, the reaction has been very favorable. Even sharp critics of the government -- like dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez -- view the changes with a degree skepticism, but also as potentially beneficial to the country. In her editorial the other day in the New York Times she wrote, “For everyone, a new era has begun. We cannot confirm that it will be better, but at least it will be different.” There seems to be euphoria around the island, a lot of expectations, and the Cuban blogosphere is full of fascinating analysis about what this will mean for the country. I think most Cubans on the island are at least relieved, and definitely filled with anticipation for what’s to come.