Two weeks ago, U.S. sailors raced across the Florida Straits to participate in the first ever Havana Challenge regatta. The last regatta of this kind could not be held with formal permission due to U.S. restrictions on pleasure craft traveling to Cuba. The reunion of the sailing communities of Florida and Cuba marked the latest easing of tensions between the U.S. and Cuba that began in December 2014.
Since President Obama’s historic sit-down with Cuban leader Raúl Castro last month at the Seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama City, following the restoration of diplomatic ties relations between the two countries after more than a half-century of hostility, one could argue that the overall relationship between the U.S. and Latin America will see better days. “Taking the old, contentious Cuba issue off the Inter-American agenda opens up real possibilities for better relations between the U.S. and Latin America,” stated Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
At the Summit of the Americas, Castro issued an unexpected statement, or rather, an apology. Referring to the decades of hostile-relations between the two countries, Castro said that President Obama “had no responsibility for this.” This statement and a series of other exchanges between the two leaders clearly evidences a willingness to work together and move their countries into a new era of relations.
The ripple effects of the U.S. – Cuba rapprochement have been felt strongly throughout the Latin America region. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos characterized U.S. – Colombian relations as their best level ever during the Summit of the Americas. And although Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro fired some accusations at the U.S. regarding the recent coup plots against his country, he also suggested that “With the support of our people and the will of our people we just might, just might, open a process of conversations with the United States and explore a path toward relations of mutual respect.” So, is a silver lining emerging in U.S. – Venezuelan relations? That is hard to say, but given the opening of doors between the U.S. and Cuba, one is only left to wonder about the future of relations between the U.S. and Venezuela.
To be sure, there remains much to be discussed and negotiated between the U.S. and Cuba before we can really say that the decades of tension have thawed. For one, Cuba is reluctant to grant American diplomats unrestricted travel on the island, especially if they seek to engage with Cuban citizens. While the U.S. maintains that this is the norm in international diplomacy, the Cuban government fears that U.S. diplomats will provide encouragement and assistance to activists advocating for political pluralism. Further, Cuba wants to be removed from the U.S’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. The U.S., however, will carefully debate this topic because the act of doing so would create parallel pressure for the government to lift its half-century long embargo against the island. While forward-thinking continues to characterize discussions between U.S. and Cuban government representatives, the challenges that are bound to characterize future negotiations are complex, and also carry important implications for the rest of the Latin America region.