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Analysis of President Obama’s announcement regarding the release of Alan Gross and the future of U.S.-Cuba relations

Eric L. Olson

The announcement by President Obama of the release of U.S. contractor Alan Gross together with a long-imprisoned intelligence asset is welcome news. Their incarceration, along with the even greater numbers of Cubans who have been jailed in Cuba for trying to exercise their rights to freedom of speech and assembly, has long been a stumbling block in the relationship.

December 17, 2014

The announcement by President Obama of the release of U.S. contractor Alan Gross together with a long-imprisoned intelligence asset is welcome news. Their incarceration, along with the even greater numbers of Cubans who have been jailed in Cuba for trying to exercise their rights to freedom of speech and assembly, has long been a stumbling block in the relationship.

With Mr. Gross’s release—in time to celebrate the holiday of Chanukah with his family—the President now has announced a major shift in U.S. policy, from isolation to engagement. While the President is not able to lift the U.S. embargo—which has been codified in law and can only be modified by the U.S. Congress—he has announced a series of steps that could lead to full normalization of relations, the opening of embassies, and the exchange of ambassadors.  Additionally, he announced measures that can have a profound impact on people-to-people contacts and Cuban entrepreneurship, by easing banking restrictions and expanding trade, commerce, travel, and connectivity between both countries. 

The steps announced by President Obama are consistent with U.S. relations with other former Cold War rivals such as Russia, China, and Vietnam.  While engagement with these countries has often been fraught with difficulty, diplomacy and trade continue to be the accepted way to improve relations and encourage democratic change, Cuba has been treated as an exception.  The steps announced by President Obama do not constitute a magic wand that will lead automatically to a freer and more democratic Cuba.  Improving human rights conditions in Cuba is still a major concern and the obligation and responsibility of the Cuban state.  Nevertheless, by increasing trade with Cuba, especially in the area of telecommunications, and increasing from $500 to $2,000 the remittances Cubans in the United States can send to their families on the Island each quarter, the United States may be unleashing powerful forces within Cuba.  These could well empower the Cuban people to make the kinds of reforms that will guarantee basic freedoms and human rights that decades of U.S. efforts to isolate the Island have failed to produce. 

Equally important is that these steps will have a significant effect on U.S. relations with other nations of the hemisphere, who have long viewed U.S. policy as anachronistic and counter-productive.  This is particularly true in light of the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Panama next year, where U.S. efforts to sideline Cuba threatened once again to hinder cooperation on other critical issues in U.S.-Latin American relations.  Furthermore, Congress will now have an opportunity to debate U.S. policy towards Cuba and how our country can best support the legitimate aspirations of Cubans for a just, democratic, and prosperous future.

*The opinions in this statement represent the personal views of the author and do not represent an institutional position of the Woodrow Wilson Center.

About the Author

Eric L. Olson

Eric L. Olson

Global Fellow;
Director of the Central America-D.C. Platform, Seattle International Foundation
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Latin American Program

The Wilson Center’s prestigious Latin American Program provides non-partisan expertise to a broad community of decision makers in the United States and Latin America on critical policy issues facing the Hemisphere. The Program provides insightful and actionable research for policymakers, private sector leaders, journalists, and public intellectuals in the United States and Latin America. To bridge the gap between scholarship and policy action, it fosters new inquiry, sponsors high-level public and private meetings among multiple stakeholders, and explores policy options to improve outcomes for citizens throughout the Americas. Drawing on the Wilson Center’s strength as the nation’s key non-partisan forum, the Program serves as a trusted source of analysis and a vital point of contact between the worlds of scholarship and action.  Read more