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Never Thaw that coming! US strategy toward Cuba under Obama and Trump

by John de Bhal on April 17, 2018

Barack Obama’s trip to Cuba in 2016 marked the first US Presidential visit to the island nation since 1928. The trip was a product of the ‘Thaw’ in US-Cuba relations, announced by Obama himself in December 2014. Indeed, the announcement marked the first time that the two states have shared diplomatic relations in more than five decades. In addition to Obama’s state visit, the Thaw has been characterised by the renewal of commercial flights from the US to Cuba, the opening of the US Embassy in Havana and the loosening of restrictions on US capital into Cuba. In other words, the Thaw seemingly represents a significant shift in US foreign policy toward the island nation. Existing accounts of the Thaw also reflect the belief that the change is substantial and considerable.

However, as I argue in an article recently published online by Contemporary Politics, this conventional wisdom represents an extremely superficial assessment of the extent to which the Thaw indicates a significant change in US foreign policy toward Cuba. On the contrary, I argue that the Thaw represents a change in the means of US foreign policy to pursue the same ends that previous Administrations have been trying to achieve for the best part of five decades. Thus, Washington remains committed to its decades-old objective of bringing capitalism and electoral democracy to Cuba; the only change is in the means for pursuing this end.

The possibilities of this change in method were first raised in Washington around 2008, after Raúl Castro partially liberalised some sectors of the Cuban economy, which had been almost entirely centrally-planned since the 1960s. A number of actors, including coalitions of US businesses, were enticed by Castro’s reforms and asked the Obama Administration to change its approach toward Cuba in order to be able to more effectively exploit Cuba’s changing economic landscape.

The struggle made by these particular social forces proved unsuccessful in Obama’s first term for political reasons. The arrest of Alan Gross in Cuba, a USAID worker who was found guilty of trying to subvert the Castro regime, made a Thaw with Cuba politically risky for Democrats and Obama seeking (re)election in 2012. After the 2012 Presidential Election, secret talks between the two states led by Deputy National Security Advisor Benjamin Rhodes were initiated.

The change of policy itself was announced at the end of 2014 after months of secret negotiations. Obama himself was forthright about the impetus behind the change:

Our original theory on this was not that we were going to see immediate changes or loosening of control of the Castro regime. But rather that over time you’d lay the predicates for substantial transformation… The more that [the Cuban people] see the benefits of US investment, the more that US tourist dollars become woven into their economy, the more that telecommunications is [sic] opened up so that Cubans are getting information unfettered by censorship, the more you’re laying the foundation for the bigger changes that are going to be coming over time (Obama, 2015).

In other words, the goals of the change in policy were the same. The only difference this time, was the means for pursuing these objectives. In terms drawn from Antonio Gramsci, the change is a shift to more ‘consensual’ or ‘persuasive’ means for achieving the goals of US foreign policy in Cuba, as opposed to the purely coercive strategies of isolation and economic embargoes, which still remain in place due to a Republican-controlled Congress.

The election of Donald Trump as US President in late 2016 was initially seen to represent a death sentence for the Thaw. Trump announced via Twitter that he was ‘cancelling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba’ (Trump, 2017). The reality is, however, that the Trump Administration by no means ‘cancelled’ Obama’s Thaw. The vast majority of Obama’s policy initiatives have been left untouched, with Trump making two relatively minor modifications. The first is that US businesses may not make financial transactions with the Cuban state, as this would be seen as ‘propping up’ the Castro regime. But even under Obama, this was never the objective. The second change is that individual American tourists are no longer permitted to travel to Cuba alone. Tourism in groups is still allowed, but solo travel has been prohibited. Every other type of travel, as authorised by Obama as part of the Thaw, is still permitted, bar this one exception. In other words, Obama’s Thaw has been left largely in place by the Trump Administration.

With Raúl Castro stepping down as Cuban President in 2018, the future of Cuba’s economic, social and political arrangements appears unclear. With social contestation already underway and being fuelled by American material and ideological forces, Cuba’s political and economic architecture is deeply engulfed in question marks and uncertainty. Only time will tell the extent to which the US is capable of influencing and shaping the future of the island’s economic, political, social and ideological landscapes.


Obama, Barack (2015) “Obama really wants to go to Cuba, but only if the conditions are right.” Yahoo, accessed 7 January.

Trump, Donald (2017) “Remarks by President Trump on the Policy of the United States Towards Cuba.” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, accessed 2 August.

John de Bhal
John de Bhal is a former student at the University of Queensland's School of Political Science and International Studies. His research interests are International Political Economy, Latin American Politics, Historical Materialism, and the Politics of the Global South.
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  • Don Sutherland
    April 17, 2018 at 2:14 pm

    Bringing “electoral democracy” to Cuba. Is it not worth pointing out that Cuba already has “electoral democracy”, as per the recent national elections.

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