By Alexander Britell
The Caribbean changed forever on Wednesday morning.
United States President Barack Obama announced a major shift in more than half-century of American politics, signaling the two countries’ desire to work toward normalizing relations.
The announcement came alongside a high-level prisoner swap of Alan Gross, a USAID contractor jailed for five years on espionage charges, for three Cubans convicted of spying on the United States.
Gross was released alongside an unnamed agent whom Obama called one of the most important intelligence agents the US has ever had in Cuba, who had been imprisoned for nearly two decades.
The imprisonment of all parties had been a point of major contention between the two countries.
In an address Wednesday, Obama said he had ordered US Secretary of State John Kerry to immediately begin discussions with Cuba to reestablish diplomatic relations severed since January 1961.
The US will also reestablish an embassy in Havana and “high-ranking officials will visit Havana.”
Obama said he had also asked Kerry to review Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism.
He said the US was taking steps to increase travel, commerce and the flow of information to Cuba.
The plan includes the aforementioned re-establishment of diplomatic relations, a change in travel and remittance policies to increase people to people contact and the overall expansion of travel to Cuba.
That also includes expanded sales and exports of certain goods and services from the US to Cuba, along with the authorization of American citizens to import $400 goods from Cuba, with a maximum of $100 on alcohol and tobacco.
The White House also said US telecom providers will be allowed to establish “the necessary mechanisms, including infrastructure, in Cuba to provide commercial telecommunications and internet services,” in a country that has one of the lowest rates of Internet penetration on earth.
Obama said he would end an “outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests.”
In a statement to the Cuban people, Cuban President Raul Castro said he and Obama had spoken by telephone on Tuesday to address “issues of interest to both nations.”
He also thanked Pope Francis and the government of Canada, who reportedly helped facilitate high-level talks between the two countries.
Of course, much of the President’s actions will take time and face roadblocks, with the biggest impediment, the Cuban Embargo, one that can only be changed with approval by the US Congress.
Indeed, the announcement was immediately met with criticism from a number of US lawmakers and the Cuban diaspora community, including US Senator Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban exiles who criticized the prisoner exchange and said Obama’s actions had “vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government.”
Raul Castro himself confirmed the agreement, but noted the tough road ahead and that the announcement was by no means decisive.
“This does not mean the main matter is resolved,” Castro said. “The economic, commercial and financial blockade that causes enormous human and economic damage to our country must cease.”
“Recognizing that we have deep differences, mainly on national sovereignty, democracy, human rights and foreign policy, I reaffirm our willingness to discuss all these issues,” Castro said.
Castor said he urged “the government of the United States to remove obstacles that prevent or restrict the links between our peoples, families and citizens of both countries,” Castro said. “In particular, those relating to travel, direct mail and telecommunications.”
But what does a normalized relationship mean for the wider Caribbean?
Cuba welcomed around 2.85 million tourists last year, the vast majority from Canada and Europe, and a number that, with the proper development of tourist infrastructure and the like, could surpass the Dominican Republic, the current regional leader.
Indeed, that number will certainly increase if and when American travel becomes formally legalized; but will that mean travelers choosing Cuba over Jamaica or the Dominican Republic?
Or will a renewed Cuban tourism sector mean a larger tourism pie for the whole Caribbean?
There is another issue — notably, the impact of the massive size of the Cuban market on the rest of the region’s economy — how will potential Cuban exports to America impact Caribbean exports to Cuba?
The answers will soon become clear.