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By: James A. Baer, Professor of history at the Alexandria Campus of Northern Virginia Community College and a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

Diplomats from the United States and Cuba met in Havana on January 21-22, 2015 to discuss issues that had to be resolved in order to restore full relations between these two long-standing enemies. These include the establishment of full diplomatic ties, expansion of travel and trade between the two countries, and the opening of financial and telecommunications networks. In addition, there are several long-standing questions that may be much more difficult to resolve. These include the removal of Cuba from the U.S. list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, returning Havana’s full sovereignty over the U.S. base at Guantanamo, reimbursement for the nationalization of private U.S. property now in the hands of the Cuban state, and the continued lifting of restrictions of political freedoms in Cuba.

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs believes that these first steps are important, and encourages both governments to pursue good-faith negotiations on all outstanding issues. For too long the United States has refused to deal with Cuba on issues separating the two countries, instead pursuing policies that have proven outdated, ineffective and counter-productive. Increasingly, it has been the United States and not Cuba that has been isolated by these policies. Member countries of the Organization of American States (OAS), for example, have demanded that Cuba be invited to the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama. Moreover, almost all European, Asian and African countries maintain some form of diplomatic and economic ties to Cuba, leaving the United States on the margins with increasingly diminished influence in the region.

From the outset, these talks will be difficult to advance, as constituencies in both the United States and Cuba remain opposed to normalized relations. In the United States, the fading relic of the influence wielded by the Miami-based Cuban exile community staunchly defends the embargo and claims that negotiations only strengthen the communist government in Cuba. Their champion, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), has tirelessly used this issue to advance his own presidential ambitions, denouncing the Obama administration’s recent overtures to the Castro regime. In Cuba, despite the recent statements by Fidel Castro that these talks may prove useful, some within the Cuban Communist Party fear that engagement may weaken their hold on power. Nevertheless, it is imperative that high level negotiations continue for as long as it takes to resolve the countries’ differences and produce a lasting agreement. It may take years, as each side has long-entrenched positions that cannot be easily dislodged. This means that talks need to be supported by more than just Raul Castro and the Obama administration. Presidential elections in the U.S. in 2016 will also bring new leadership that must be persuaded to continue negotiations. Likewise, Raul Castro, the Cuban leader, made it his intention to step down in 2018, and his successor must also be willing to pursue a negotiated settlement to the numerous issues facing prospects for a continued U.S.-Cuba rapprochement.

The embargo has been a colossal failure. Monetary and travel restrictions imposed by the U.S. have certainly hurt Cubans have not fatally wounded the regime. Cold War policies need to be replaced with ones more in step with the new reality of Latin America and the rapid transformation of Cuba into an increasingly viable society that is here to stay. There will be much posturing over a parade of key issues as efforts made to politicize them in both countries, especially leading up to elections, with the most difficult problems likely to remain unresolved even into the distant future. However, the counter-productive stance held by one U.S. administration after another to undermine or force change on the Cuban nation must be traded for one more likely to produce results. The Obama administration has opened a new era in Cuban-American relations that can only benefit the people of both countries. It should continue despite future challenges and regardless of mean-spirited and narrow self-interest domestic politics and self-serving politicians in both countries. Engagement with Cuba is a must.

By: James A. Baer, Professor of history at the Alexandria Campus of Northern Virginia Community College and a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

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Featured image by: Magdalena Roeseler. “Viva la Habana.” Taken on November 28, 2013. Taken from: