What’s Next for Cuba and the U.S.?

21tue1web-master675An honor guard prepared to raise the Cuban flag in front of the country’s newly reopened embassy in Washington on Monday. Pool photo by Andrew Harnik

As a neatly pressed Cuban flag was raised outside Cuba’s diplomatic mission in Washington on Monday morning, rancorous cries rang out from the crowd gathered outside the stately limestone building.

“Cuba without Castro!” a hoarse-voiced man yelled. “Long live socialist Cuba!” a woman hollered back.

Bitterly divergent views about the island’s future will persist, and may well become amplified, as Washington and Havana embark on an era of cautious engagement following the formal restoration of diplomatic relations. But that’s to be expected in response to such a historic and difficult change.

For more than five decades, the enmity between the United States and Cuba has dominated the island’s politics, served as a pretext for government repression and shaped the lives of all Cubans in painful ways.

As sworn enemies become uneasy but respectful neighbors, the Cuban government is certain to come under increasing pressure from its citizens. They have long yearned for basic freedoms, like being able to oppose the government without fear, create livelihoods that are not controlled by the state, and have access to technology that allows communication with the rest of the world.

Through careful diplomacy, the Obama administration has done much to support Cubans on the island and allow Cuban-Americans to invest in and reconnect with their native country. Ultimately, Congress will need to lift the trade embargo, a failed policy. There is growing support for bills that would dismantle key parts of it by ending travel restrictions and allowing more types of commerce.

“There is, after all, nothing to be lost — and much to be gained — by encouraging travel between our nations, the free flow of information and ideas, the resumption of commerce and the removal of obstacles that have made it harder for families to visit their loved ones,” Secretary of State John Kerry said Monday as he hosted Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s foreign minister, at the State Department.

It would be naïve to expect that the Cuban government, a dynastic police state, will take big steps in the near future to liberalize its centrally planned economy, encourage private enterprise or embrace pluralistic political reforms. In fact, in the face of potentially destabilizing change and high expectations at home, Cuban officials may be tempted to tighten state controls in the short term.

The full normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba will take years and will be an arduous process. Issues that will be hard to resolve include the disposition of American property the Cuban government seized in the 1960s, and the fate of the United States Navy base in Guantánamo Bay, which the Cuban government considers an illegally occupied territory.

At 88, Fidel Castro has become a faint voice in the lives of Cubans. His brother President Raúl Castro, 84, has pledged to step down in 2018. The end of their reign will be another transformational moment in that nation’s history. Until then, some Cubans want to see a flood of foreign investment and a booming private sector. Others worry that a rapid economic transition will erode the socialist principles that have offered ordinary Cubans education and health care superior to that available to millions of impoverished Latin Americans. Some are eager for a multiparty political system with real elections, while others would settle for a more effective, less intrusive government.

These competing visions will be hard to reconcile. But they will eventually have to be debated and resolved among Cubans. In the meantime, altering the image of the United States as an antagonistic neighbor stands to help enormously.

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