Policy Alert: An American President in Cuba: Reactions from Rising Powers
On March 20, President Barack Obama became the first sitting president to visit Cuba since 1928. The trip marked a pivotal moment in the efforts to normalize bilateral relations that have been long characterized by mutual enmity. Obama called on Cuba to open its economy and political system while Cuban President Raúl Castro urged the U.S. Congress to lift the trade embargo. In this Policy Alert, we highlight the reactions of rising powers to the trip and steps made toward normalized relations, including commentary in China, Brazil, Russia, India, Japan, and South Korea.
As two of the few remaining Communist countries in the world, China’s foreign ministry said its “continued mutually beneficial cooperation with Cuba” is not dependent on the action of third-parties such as the United States. The ministry welcomed the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States and pressed the U.S. Congress to completely lift the trade embargo. Chinese President Xi Jingping traveled to Cuba in 2014 and visited the barracks where Fidel Castro launched his revolution.
- China Daily praised Obama’s policy shift as evidence “engagement can work a miracle where confrontation can’t.” The paper expected the thaw in relations to be a “prominent part of Obama’s legacy,” but Washington still needs to lift the embargo and “control its impulse to impose its will on Havana” to have a lasting impact. Xinhua also cited the trip as a “bold gambit” to shape Obama’s foreign policy legacy.
- Jia Xiudong, distinguished research fellow with the China Institute of International Studies, concluded Obama’s visit was a political move to cement his liberal legacy abroad at a time when Republican opposition prevents him from doing so at home. Furthermore, he insisted the United States “take responsibility for the significant role its actions play in the evolution of international relations” and anti-American sentiment around the world.
- Despite the trip’s rosy outlook, Zhu Dongyang, a writer with Xinhua, wrote “ultimate rapprochement with Cuba requires the United States to refrain from imposing its ideology on others and to treat others as equals.”
Others doubted whether Obama’s relaxed policies on Cuba will outlast his presidency, depending on who occupies the White House next year.
- Zhong Bu, a former journalist at China Daily, noted many in the U.S. Congress were “appalled” by the trip. He thought the renewed ties between Cuba and the United States disproportionately benefits Cuba and any real improvement in relations “pretty much depends on who is moving into the White House.” Xinhua echoed this view and observed the trip “triggered an enormous backlash from U.S. demagogic presidential contenders.”
- The Global Times maintained “Cuba will probably face a lot of tests after it opens,” but Havana has already “shown extraordinary courage and determination” in its recent moves. The editorial wished Cuba good luck on this path but warned “Washington will resume its hawkish attitude” if Obama’s legacy is abandoned by the next president.
- On the other hand, The South China Morning Post declared “isolating Cuba has failed” and Obama’s “engagement brings results” since “speaking to Cubans on their own soil about free markets and expression has every chance of bringing about change.”
- Xinhua reported Cuba expected an increase in U.S. investment on the island in renewable energy, oil, and tourism. Several U.S., European, and Chinese tourist firms have “scramble[d]” to take advantage of Cuba’s tourist infrastructure.
Although President Obama’s trip to Cuba was widely reported in the Brazilian press, it generated relatively little commentary and no official reaction. President Dilma Rousseff did not make any official statement regarding the visit, but both she and Itamaraty – Brazil’s Foreign Ministry – have expressed support for improved relations between the United States and Cuba in the past and called for the United States to end the embargo on the island.
Some media outlets in Brazil explored the reasoning behind the improvement in relations between the two countries and the role Brazil has played in bringing about this détente.
- Estado de São Paulo published an editorial describing the motives of both Obama and Castro, including looking at the role the U.S. embargo plays as both a major impediment, as well as a source of leverage for the United States by using ending it as a means to draw concessions from the Cuban government. It observed “even more than the political and diplomatic pressuring, this appears to be Obama’s big bet to get Cuba to slowly abandon the suffocating bonds of Communism. The facts are in his favor. Even the modest reforms implemented by Raúl Castro were sufficient to bring 1 million Cubans – 20 percent of the workforce – into the private sector.”
- In a blog post for Brasil 247, Walter Santos, publisher of the Northeast journal, praised the visit for overcoming the legacy of the ideological clash between capitalism and communism. He also commended the role of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for his work during his two terms pursuing dialogue between the two countries.
- Santos closed by drawing comparisons between the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement and the need for Brazil’s highly polarized society to learn to work together, particularly for the center and right parties to accept the legitimacy of the Workers Party and other leftist parties.
- Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Russia “welcomed the establishment of the American-Cuban dialogue straight from start” and “this process should be equal and should certainly proceed on the basis of mutual respect without imposing any models of political and socio-economic development and certainly without patting somebody’s shoulder.”
- The spokeswoman added “the lifting of the trade, economic, and financial blockade of Cuba, including the unilateral U.S. sanctions, is the prime objective. It is odious that the United States is preserving the Guantanamo military base, which in fact has been turned into an illegal prison.”
- The foreign ministry dismissed reports Moscow may consider reopening its Soviet-era military bases and radar center in Cuba. However, Alexander Shchetinin, director of the foreign ministry’s Latin America department, did not rule out the possibility Russia may discuss with Latin American countries the establishment of the Russian Navy’s logistics centers on their territory.
Russian experts emphasized U.S.-Cuba diplomatic rapprochement does not necessarily lead to competition between Russia and the United States.
- Mikhail Belyat, an expert on Latin America and a researcher at the Russian State University for the Humanities, assured U.S. activity in the region “does not threaten” Russia’s interests since Moscow has only “modest” policy toward Cuba and Latin America.
- Vladimir Davydov, director of the Institute of Latin America at the Russian Academy of Sciences, predicted Cuban leaders would not fully embrace the United States as they seek to preserve their positions and political system. This is where Russia should act as a “counterweight” and seek further engagement with Cuba. In fact, Moscow has been slowly restoring its ties with Havana, writing off Cuba’s $32 billion debt to Russia in 2014 andproviding a $1.36 billion loan for power plants construction in 2015.
- “The main economic competitor in Cuba for the U.S. will not be Russia, but China,” said Vladimir Sudarev, professor of the Department of History and Politics of Europe and America at the MGIMO University. Beijing’s trade with Havana increased by 57 percent during the first three quarters of 2015, and China is now Cuba’s second largest trade partner, only behind Venezuela.
- The Hindu hailed the trip as a “remarkable moment in global diplomacy” and credited the “blunted opposition of the Cuban American community” and “big farming” interests as drivers for the new Obama policy. Nevertheless, the paper expected “full normalization of ties will take time” and will be determined by the next U.S. president.
- Times of India saw the visit as “a historic pivot in U.S.-Cuba Relations,” but one whose long-term success depends on the next president. Still, the editorial praised Obama for showing he can “overturn shibboleths of foreign policy when they don’t serve U.S. interests.”
- The Indian Express did not believe the trip “put the final nail in the coffin of the last legacy of the Cold War,” but it was a good start and time for Havana to begin reciprocating Washington’s flexibility.
- Contending “U.S. overtures to Havana” must make China “leery,” Chidanand Rajghatta, a writer for The Times of India, accused China of hypocrisy when Xinhua wrote “rapprochement with Cuba requires the United States to refrain from imposing its ideology on others.” He retorted, “Yeah, right. China never imposes its ideology on others and treats everyone as equal.”
- Raghubansh Sinha in Hindustan Times characterized Obama’s change in policy toward Cuba as an “uncharacteristically adventurous” move on the part of the typically cautious president. He argued this bold stroke, however, would not result in the lifting of the trade embargo, which requires “Cold warriors” in Congress to give up their fight. Daily Pioneer pronounced a similar view.
Others in India over the past year have focused on the opportunities for Indian businesses once Cuba joins the international marketplace.
- Last summer, Dipanjan Roy Chaudhury, an editor with The Economic Times, suggested India play a role in the evolving ties between Washington and Havana due to New Delhi’s positive relationship with both countries. He noted India’s long history of coming to “Havana’s help” during “several difficult moments in Cuban history” and Cuba’s support for India’s claim for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
- In a similar op-ed last year, Anjana Menon urged Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indian companies to take advantage of the “right mix of opportunity, nostalgia, and friendship” to “put a firm foot through the door” once Cuba opens up to international markets.
The Japanese government hailed President Obama’s visit, expressing hope U.S.-Cuba relations “will deepen and contribute to the stability, peace, and prosperity in the region.” Media outlets in Japan also unanimously welcomed the visit.
- Asahi Shimbun opined “two ‘interests’ served as a lever for Cuba and the United States to end their long history of mutual enmity: Cuba’s interest lies in rebuilding its economy, while Obama’s is to leave a major legacy of his presidency.” The editorial urged further ties and overcoming thorny issues such as the U.S. economic embargo and Cuba’s human rights violations.
- Nikkei Shimbun showed hope the success of diplomatic and economic engagement in Cuba could have positive ripple effects across Latin America, where many anti-American populist regimes still hold power. This could also have geopolitical implications, the article continued, as China and Russia have been engaging with these countries to curtail America’s influence in the region.
- While showing support for the normalization efforts, Sankei Shimbun criticized the visit as “ceremonial,” lacking any progress in stopping Cuba’s human rights violations or lifting the economic embargo.
South Korean newspapers debated the implications of President Obama’s trip to Cuba for North Korea.
- “Many South Koreans are wondering what North Korean leader Kim Jong-un thinks about Cuba’s normalized relations” with the United States, opined The Korea Times, calling on Pyongyang to follow the suit by engaging in “authentic and credible” talks.
- North Korea “must learn a lesson from… the Cuban style of reconciliation,” argued JoongAng Ilbo. Just as Cuba has avoided nuclearization and achieved normalized relations with the United States, “North Korea must realize that it can sustain its regime without nuclear weapons.”
- Dong-A Ilbo expressed hope the United States can play a role as a “game changer” on the Korean Peninsula. “If Kim Jong-un decides to stop hostile policies against South Korea and the U.S. and return to the negotiating table, the U.S. may reward by doing the same thing they did to Cuba – establishing diplomatic relations with the North without requiring regime change.”