Obama and Raul Castro Shook Hands Yesterday. Here's Why That's a Big Deal.

April 11th 2014

Mike Vainisi

President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro met Saturday, a historic meeting between the two countries' presidents, at the Summit of the Americas, currently taking place in Panama City, Panama. It's been more than 50 years since the leader of the U.S. sat down with the leader of Cuba.

Obama and Castro have previously spoken with each other over the phone. There was a phone call between the two leaders late last year before the U.S. announced it would begin to "normalize" relations with Cuba. The next step in thawing relations between the two countries is expected to be the U.S. removing Cuba from its terror watchlist.

In a speech at the Summit on Saturday, Obama said that the U.S. would not be "imprisoned by the past," although the two countries have sharp disagreements. Speaking later, Castro, in an emotional speech, reminded the Summit of what he believed to be a long history of unjust treatment of Cuba by the U.S. before going on to say that Obama was not responsible for past American action. He also called the president an "honest man."

What ever happened to Fidel Castro?

Raúl is Fidel's brother. Raúl took over as president in 2008 when Fidel retired. Raúl is no spring chicken himself -- he's 83. Fidel is still alive at 88.

What does it mean to"normalize" relations with Cuba?

So far, it seems to mean two things: 

1. The U.S. will have full diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time since President Kennedy was in office.

2. The U.S. will once again have an official embassy in Cuba.

So can I travel to Cuba, now?

Not quite yet. The travel ban is still on.

Can Starbucks finally open stores in Cuba now?

No, the trade embargo is still in place. Only Congress can completely remove the embargo. The president can, however, limit the effects of the embargo.

So can I buy Cuban cigars?

Sort of. Americans who can go to Cuba -- a list that has been expanded to include certain people such as journalists, researchers, religious officials, performers, and government officials -- can bring back up to $100 worth of tobacco and alcohol products for personal use.

Americans buying products in Cuba will now be able to use their debit and credit cards as banking restrictions have been lifted.

How did this comes about?

The resumption of normalized relations stemmed from negotiations between Cuba and the U.S. over a number of issues, namely prisoners being held in both countries. Pope Francis was reportedly instrumental in bringing the countries together over Cuba's detention of American aid worker Alan Gross. You might remember that Gross was the American contractor who was detained in Cuba from 2009 until the end of 2014. Negotiations for his release coincided with President Obama's announcement that the U.S. would "normalize" relations with Cuba. While the U.S. claims it did not directly trade for Gross' release, it seems his release was a big issue. Formally, the U.S. released three alleged Cuban spies in exchange for an American intelligence asset held by Cuba as well as Cuba's release of 50 political prisoners.

Did the U.S. get anything else?

Cuba will allow the United Nations and the Red Cross to have a presence in Cuba.

Cuba will also increase internet access -- something the U.S. said will help increase the chances of open, democratic government.

Who doesn't like this?

Republicans are generally arguing that the president gave away too much -- diplomatic relations and the alleged spies -- without any formal move toward democratic government in Cuba. 

The president is arguing that 50 years of frozen relations haven't gotten us anywhere, so why not try something else?

Why have we not been talking to Cuba for such a long time?

It all goes back to the Cold War. In the late 1950s, Fidel Castro led a what would become a Communist revolution in Cuba. Once in power, Castro became an unequivocal ally of the Soviet Union. Having installed a Communist government on in the island nation, Castro rooted out all opposition (killing and imprisoning a lot of people) and stole private property, including private property owned by Americans. The U.S. also did not take kindly to the idea of Soviet influence so close to American shores and attempted more than once to oust Fidel Castro, most famously with the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. But they never could get rid of Castro. He's still alive, by the way, but his brother Raúl now runs the country. The most tense moment between the two countries came in October 1962 when the U.S. discovered that the Soviet Union was building launch sites for nuclear weapons in Cuba. In response, President Kennedy initiated a blockade of the island, which led to possibly the most frightening two weeks in American history as the U.S. and the Soviet Union were locked in a stare down that many people thought would end in nuclear war. Cooler heads prevailed though, and, as part of the deal to get the missiles out of Cuba, the US agreed to stop trying to kill Fidel Castro. (The U.S. also secretly agreed to remove some missiles from Turkey and Italy.)

If this goes back to the Cold War and the Cold War is over, why is it still such an issue?

Since the Cold War ended in the late 1980s / early 1990s, there have been a few flare-ups between the U.S. and Cuba. (You might remember the Elián González situation.) For the most part, though, the icy relations between the U.S. and Cuba are a relic from an earlier period that ended more than 20 years ago.

One of the reasons the U.S. has not resumed normal trade and relations with Cuba is the influence of the Cuban-American community. After the rise of Castro in the late 1950s, thousands of Cubans were forced to flee their country, leaving everything behind. Many of them settled in South Florida, where there is now a vibrant Cuban community. Among many of these families, there is a understandable sense that the Cuban government is illegitimate, stole their property, and that the U.S. must stand on principle. And they have not been shy in demanding that stance from their elected representatives. The fact that Cubans are a major voting bloc in Florida, a traditional swing state in presidential elections, only heightens their influence on this issue.

On the other hand, Cuban-American attitudes could be changing. Recent polling says the community is more open to normalized relations, and it's possible this provided enough cover for the Obama administration to make a move towards reconciliation with its island neighbor. Prominent Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, is against the president's action, however. Rubio is expected to run for president in 2016. Another likely 2016 Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is also against the president's action on Cuba.

There's also the important reality that things are still pretty bad in Cuba. It's a dictatorship where people have limited rights. The economic prospects for the average person are bleak at best. Not much has really changed since the 1960s. (In fact, people are still driving cars from decades ago.) Some feel that the U.S. should not welcome Cuba with open arms until the Castros make a real effort to improve this situation and allow for democratic reform.

So what will happen now?

Expect a fight in Congress over this issue. Republicans control the Senate and the House of Representatives, and they may vote to restrict the president's authority on this issue. They could also restrict funding for a full embassy operation in Cuba.

In the meantime, it appears the U.S. and Cuba are talking again. That could mean something. Or it could mean nothing. 

Was this a big deal?

Yes. On a scale of 1-10, it's probably about an 8. It's a historic resumption of relations after 50 years of silence. It's also a major surprise. It's true that ending the embargo, importing Cuban cigars to the U.S., and opening Hyatt's and Marriott's in Havana would all constitute a 10, but there is no doubt that normalization is a major change. We've just witnessed the beginning of the end of one of the most prominent stand-offs in international politics.