UMassD Q&A on U.S.-Cuba Relations with Professor Cristina Mehrtens

This past week, President Obama announced historic steps to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba. UMass Dartmouth Associate Professor Dr. Cristina Mehrtens, who was in transit in South America when the President made his remarks, noted this as a political landmark for the United States. Dr. Mehrtens expands below upon the significance of the announcement, the reaction on all sides, and what comes next.

"Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future -- for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world." -- President Obama, December 17, 2014

This past week, President Obama announced historic steps to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba. UMass Dartmouth Associate Professor Dr. Cristina Mehrtens, who was in transit in South America when the President made his remarks, noted this as a political landmark for the United States. Dr. Mehrtens expands below upon the significance of the announcement, the reaction on all sides, and what comes next.

How significant were the remarks made by the President regarding U.S.-Cuba Relations?

CM: Symbolized by the release of prisoners on December 17, the normalization of U.S. relations with Havana broke a bilateral stalemate and caused an overflowing of opinions. By restoring full diplomatic relations, the administration takes steps to remove Cuba from the State Department list of countries that sponsor terrorism and roll back restrictions on travel and trade.

Some commentaries from the right, linked to an anti-Cuban slant of mainstream thinking, exemplified by Senator Marco Rubio, suggest that the Cuban Revolution emerges from this event as a huge success. Commentaries from the left applaud the long resistance of tiny Cuba to the northern Goliath. Those who are actually supportive of participatory democracy in Cuba, criticize the various flaws and failures of the Cuban Revolution as well as the thwarted hostile US policy, euphemistically known as "regime change."

Such commentaries oppose political change by secret programs and support the administration move to greater openness on the island and the relaxation of the external threat. Despite relentless skepticism from both the left and the mainstream media, the President's extreme emphasis on diplomatic secrecy worked to his advantage. For over a year, leaders in both countries have conducted regular private debates and consultations, which resulted in the detailed normalization plan released on December 17.

What factors do you think influenced, historical or otherwise, the President to make this decision?

CM: For the past 50 years, the Cuban Communist Party stayed confidently in power. In both Latin America and the United Nations, Cuba is accepted, but it was isolated by the United States.

Despite the U.S. embargo and relentless U.S. subversion, Cuba remains in the upper tier of the United Nations Human Development Index because of its educational and healthcare achievements.

Cuba even leads the international community in the dispatch of medical workers to fight Ebola. Cuba is celebrated globally because of its military contribution to the defeat of colonialism and apartheid in Angola and southern Africa. Therefore, the far bigger political takeaway is to finally make what either the end of the Cold War or the unilateral U.S. embargo did not do to bring down the political system.

It's been proven that engagement can work when it comes to changing a country's political system. The event initiated on December 17 might be the first step towards something resembling a more responsive ruling class.

President Obama did not lift the U.S. blockade of Cuba, which consists of economic sanctions against Cuba and restrictions on Cuban travel and commerce. The blockade has cost Cuba in excess of $1 trillion. As the President stated, that strategy has been a failure. During the Clinton administration, Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act, which tightened the blockade. Obama promised to try to work with Congress to repeal this legislation.

What do you think the reaction is to citizens living in Cuba?

CM: This is a transformational era for millions of Cubans who have suffered as a result of more than 50 years of hostility between the two nations. Cuba cannot depend on Venezuela's petrodollar-funded generosity anymore. This is why Cuba has no choice but to grab the economic opening the Obama Administration is offering.

The Cuban government is going to let more of its people get Internet access -- only 5 percent do right now. And, to that end, U.S. companies will be allowed to export computers, smartphones, and software among other things. They'll also be able to sell basic goods like construction material and agricultural equipment to help Cuban companies and farmers rebuild their economy on more efficient ground.

The changes the Obama Administration announced have the potential to empower Cuba's growing entrepreneurial class by permitting commercial and financial transactions with the United States. The White House also intends to make it easier for American technology companies to upgrade the island's primitive Internet systems, a step that could go a long way toward strengthening civil society.

Given Cuba's complicated history with the United States, it's all but certain that this new chapter will include suspicion and backsliding. Leaders in both countries must make every effort to deal with those in a rational, constructive way.

What do you think the reaction is to Cubans living in the U.S.?

CM: Because of the significance of the Cuban exile community in Miami, and the strategic importance of Florida in U.S. elections, no President has dared to normalize relations with Cuba. In The Sweet Abyss, Alice Walker states "Many of our leaders seem to view Florida's Cuban conservatives, including the assassins and terrorists among them, as People Who Vote."

On the other hand, with or without congressional action to lift the embargo, more than 400,000 Cuban-Americans traveled to Cuba last year alone. From now on, Cuban émigrés will be allowed to send up to $2,000 in remittances every three months, rather than the $500 they were previously allowed. Little is said about whether they'll be allowed to buy Cuban real estate.

What potential economic, political, cultural impact could this decision have?

CM: Mr. Obama courageously worked within the constraints of the outmoded 1996 Helms-Burton act that imposed stiff sanctions on Cuba in the pursuit of regime change. There will be an ambassador in Havana and US citizens will be able to travel to the island. The economic impact of normal relations will be close to nil at first, but it will become more important over time.

Going forward, the United States will remove Cuba from the "state terrorism" listing, which will ease the restrictions on banking, investment , and travel. For U.S. citizens, permission to travel to Cuba will be significantly widened. Business and trade possibilities will increase. Starting with the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama, the U.S. and Cuban delegations will sit at the same table. The so-called interest sections will be upgraded to formal embassies. Therefore, the embargo is going to be hollowed out from within, with American tourist and investment dollars permitted to flow.

About Cristina Mehrtens

Cristina Mehrtens (Ph.D., University of Miami, 2000) is an Associate Professor in the History and Women's & Gender Studies departments at UMass Dartmouth. She taught at the University Miami (1999-2003), Florida International University (2003-2004), and Miami-Dade College (2002-2004). She was also a professor of architecture at the Catholic University in Campinas (1987-1991) and served as an architect for the State Housing Agency (CDHU) in São Paulo (1988-1991). Most of her research has explored Brazil in the twentieth century to focus on regional histories and their socioeconomic and political trajectories including varying transnational connections.

Dr. Mehrtens lived in Miami for 16 years and earned her PhD at the University of Miami. She was a research associate at the North-Center (University of Miami) and during this period wrote several articles related to Latin America including "Crossnarratives: Havana and Miami in the 1950s" (The Latin American City Symposium, University of Miami, Oct. 2002), "Negotiations of Inclusion: The Brazilian Case and the City of Miami," (Brazilian Studies Association April 2002), and "A corrida do ouro em Miami downtown," Revista Isto É 1247 (São Paulo: Editora Tres, 1993): Center Pages. In April 2002, she was the co-organizer (with Dr. Steven Butterman) the Conference "Brazilians Outside Brazil," co-sponsored by the University of Miami Center for Latin American Studies, University of Miami Brazilian Niche Group, University of Florida Center for Latin American Studies, UM Department of Foreign Languages, Centro Cultural Brasil-EUA, Brazilian Studies Association (BRASA), and Latin American Studies Association (LASA).

As a founding member of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Miami, Dr. Mehrtens participated in extensive projects linked to the Cuban and Cuban-American community, including extensive research on the socioeconomic and political role of the first-wave Cuban American generation, including oral history (interviews) and a video production. One of the results of this research was my article "The Lost City of Miami," Architecture and Urbanism in Las Americas AU-la 3 (Tulane University 2002): 18-27.


Departments History Dept, Q & A