TIME Foreign Relations

We Know Why Obama Changed U.S. Policy Toward Cuba. But Why Did Cuba Change Its Policy Toward the U.S.?

(FILE) Picture taken 20 December 1999 in
Adalberto Roque—AFP/Getty Images Fidel Castro (L) with his brother Raul Castro on Dec. 20, 1999 in Havana

To understand the change we need to acknowledge that Castro has always followed a policy of “revolutionary pragmatism”

History News Network

This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. The article below was originally published at HNN.

The restoration of U.S. and Cuban diplomatic ties is quite an event, particularly given the hostility that defined relations between the two countries for so long. President Obama’s decision to re-open an embassy in Havana and Raul Castro’s agreement to do the same in Washington continues the thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations. The steps taken by both countries have generated much publicity over the past few months. Numerous U.S. media outlets have produced stories on the implications for Obama’s legacy and the potential fallout for 2016 presidential candidates. As usual Washington politicians and pundits have focused their attention on the reasons for the U.S. shift. Yet, it is not President Obama’s decision to seek a normalization that warrants the most attention, but rather the Castro government’s reasoning behind their determination to chart a new course in U.S.-Cuban relations. In fact, much more can be learned from concentrating instead on what is behind the Cuban leadership’s thinking.

Havana’s recent decisions are deeply rooted in what can best be termed as Cuba’s “revolutionary pragmatism.” Though the Castro government continually speaks the language of revolutionary change, it also has also taken a sensible view to foreign policy matters when necessary. Such an approach has guided Cuban engagement with the world from the 1960s to the present.

“Revolutionary pragmatism” traces back to the very beginning of the Castro regime. In the years immediately following the Cuban Revolution, for example, a top issue in US-Cuban relations included Fidel Castro’s support for anti-US guerilla movements throughout Latin America. Castro repeatedly challenged Latin Americans and others around the world to stand up to the United States. He famously declared in 1962 that it was “the duty of every revolutionary to make the revolution. In America and the world, it is known that the revolution will be victorious, but it is improper revolutionary behavior to sit at one’s doorstep waiting for the corpse of imperialism to pass by.”

Yet, privately, Castro proved willing to develop a foreign policy based on practical considerations. On a recent research trip to Cuba I gained access to the Foreign Ministry Archive in Havana and was surprised at what I found. Many detailed reports from the early 1960s discussed the prospects for revolution in Central and South America, but concluded that conditions were not ripe in many nations for radical change. This reality led to a more pragmatic position being taken by leaders in Havana as they approached Latin America.

The most documented aid came in the form of training young Latin Americans in guerilla tactics who traveled to Cuba. As historian Piero Gliejeses’s excellent studies demonstrate, Castro turned his attention to Africa as early as 1964. Havana’s decision to abandon any large-scale support for revolutionary groups in Latin America was not made due to a lack of enthusiasm for challenging Washington’s traditional sphere of influence, but owed instead to practical considerations.

Similarly, in the 1980s when the Sandinista triumph in Nicaragua offered Havana an ally in Latin America, Castro held to “revolutionary pragmatism.” He counseled Daniel Ortega not to antagonize elite economic interests too much. On a visit to Managua, Castro even declared that allowing some capitalism in the Nicaraguan economy did not violate revolutionary principles. He bluntly told Nicaraguan leaders that they did not have to follow the path taken by Cuba, “Each revolution is different from the others.”

Perhaps the greatest illustration of Cuban flexibility was the Castro regime’s response to the collapse of the Soviet Union. In June 1990, after receiving word that aid from Moscow would no longer flow to Havana, Fidel Castro announced a national emergency. He called his initiative “the Special Period in Peacetime.” Cuba welcomed foreign investment, tourism, the U.S. dollar, and allowed small-scale private businesses. While many prognosticators predicated a complete collapse of the Castro regime, the revolutionary government endured due to its ability to adapt.

Thus, recent developments must be viewed within their proper historical context. As it has in the past, Castro’s regime is pursuing “revolutionary pragmatism.”

The impetus for changes in Cuba’s approach owes to several reasons. First, since the death of Hugo Chávez in 2013 Venezuela has become a questionable economic ally. Political instability coupled with a crumbling economy has likely caused Havana to view a key economic patron in Caracas as increasingly unreliable. A complete breakdown of order in Venezuela would greatly affect the Cuban economy in a negative way. Thus, a better economic relationship with the United States is one way of protecting the island from a changing relationship with Venezuela.

Other reasons for Cuba’s rapprochement with the United States owe to domestic concerns. Since taking power in 2008, Raul Castro has been open to reforms in an attempt to make socialism work for the twenty-first century. Over the last few years the Cuban government has relaxed controls over certain sectors of the economy, but reforms have been slow and halting. Anyone who has spent time in Havana cannot help but notice the aging infrastructure and inefficient public transportation system. A key to any reform agenda is attracting foreign investment, and the United States stands as an attractive partner.

Furthermore, as Raul is poised to step down from power in 2018, Cuba is starting to make preparations for a successful turnover. An improving relationship with Washington may help his likely successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel, better navigate the transfer. In sum, at this point and time, normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations serves Havana’s best interests.

It remains to be seen just how far the Cuban government will go regarding changes in policy. Going back to 2010, Raul Castro declared during a national address that “we reform, or we sink.” His recent push for renewed relations with the United States will likely create an influx of U.S. tourists and more capital from American businesses. In turn, this could place Cuba down the path of other communist nations who embraced elements of capitalism, China and Vietnam notably. Just how far Raul will go with his reform agenda remains to be seen.

Ultimately, a U.S.-Cuban thaw is a positive step. Antagonism between the two countries serves no one, especially the Cuban people. Yet, we should not see the recent shifts as merely Washington changing course. The steps taken by Havana are equally important and should be viewed as part of a long history of shrewd diplomacy. While Cuban foreign policy has traditionally been revolutionary in rhetoric, it has proven once again to be pragmatic in practice.

Matt Jacobs received his PhD in History from Ohio University in 2015. This fall he will be a Visiting Assistant Professor of Intelligence Studies and Global Affairs at Embry-Riddle’s College of Security and Intelligence. He has conducted research at the Cuban National Archive and the Cuban Foreign Ministry Archive, both in Havana.

Read more: Why Did the U.S. and Cuba Sever Diplomatic Ties in the First Place?

TIME curiosities

When American Children Donned Castro Beards for Playtime

On July 26, 1953, the Cuban Revolution began. Six years later, it inspired a fashion trend among America's youth

If you were to observe a group of children playing war today, you might see them launching make-believe drones and deactivating imaginary IEDs. If you watched the same activity in 1968, you might have seen them parachuting out of cardboard-box helicopters or tossing plastic grenades. But in 1959, kids playing war were pint-sized guerrillas wearing flat-brimmed army hats and Castro beards made of dog fur.

In the spring of 1959, Fidel Castro was settling into his new role as Prime Minister of Cuba. Castro and his 26th of July Movement—the revolutionary army named for the 1953 attack that began the Cuban Revolution—had overthrown U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista and were now looking to implement a socialist agenda for Cuba. Meanwhile, in the U.S., a toy manufacturer was capitalizing on the news with a brand new product, as LIFE explained:

The hairy specter which once haunted Fulgencio Batista in Cuba is rising again incongruously to startle parents in the U.S. The latest novelty for moppets is a battle cap with fur chin strap which will turn any youngster, male or female, into a miniature version of Fidel Castro’s Cuban rebels.

Looking back on those days with the benefit of hindsight, the photographs of carefree youngsters take on a more sinister tint. To those who regard Castro as a totalitarian strongman with no concern for human rights, these images are disturbing: laughing children, ignorant of what was really going on in the world, costumed as a man who was busily tightening his control on a terrified nation. And the children may seem no less naive to those who view Castro as a hero dedicated to the fight against inequality and imperialism.

When LIFE published a selection of these photos in 1959, it was undoubtedly intended as a lighthearted story about children mimicking the serious business of adults in a complicated world. Castro was a mere two months into a half-century regime for which there were still high hopes, and the controversial policies he would implement in the ensuing decades were still unwritten history.

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

TIME Cold War

Scenes From Guantanamo in the Lead-Up to a Crisis

Long before a detention center opened at Guantanamo Bay, another crisis took hold of the naval base

For many Americans, the word “Guantanamo” is synonymous with a prison that has, since it opened in 2002, been regularly called out over conditions at the prison and alleged acts of torture. President Obama promised to close it during his first year in office, and now, as he approaches his last, a plan to make good on that promise is in the works.

But Guantanamo isn’t just a detention camp. It refers, of course, to a bay in Cuba, but also to the U.S. naval base that’s been situated off that bay since the signing of the Cuban-American Treaty in 1903, following the Spanish-American War. During World War II, the base was relatively quiet, used for anti-submarine warfare training and postal operations. But when the Cold War began to heat up, the servicemen who called Guantanamo home, along with their families, found themselves at the epicenter of an international crisis.

On the morning of Oct. 16, 1962, President Kennedy was greeted with a series of aerial photographs, taken by a U.S. Air Force spy plane, which clearly depicted images of Soviet ballistic missile facilities in Cuba. In the tense standoff that ensued, the U.S. enacted a naval blockade of Cuba, promising military action if necessary. For non-military residents of the base at Guantanamo, this meant one thing: It was time to leave. As LIFE wrote:

At the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo on the southeast coast of Cuba, the wives and children of servicemen had almost grown accustomed to living on the boundary of the Cold War. As they went bout their daily routines, they could see Castro’s guards, ghostly and menacing against the jungle. But for all the hostility outside the 24-mile fence line, this American enclave in Cuba was pleasant and homey. Then came the electrifying command for the dependents to assemble for an evacuation in one hour.

LIFE photographer Robert W. Kelley captured what life was like for those families leading up to the evacuation—a quiet life in which children played tag when they weren’t doing their homework and women cared for their charges while their husbands went about their duties. It was a life that would soon be abruptly interrupted as the world feared that the Cold War was seconds away from turning irrevocably hot.

Thankfully, that outcome was avoided. Another, slower-boiling crisis would come to Guantanamo decades later with the creation, criticism and planned destruction of the prison that has come to define the word itself.

November 2, 1962 issue of LIFE Magazine
Robert W. Kelley—LIFE Magazine

Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.

TIME National Security

Plan to Close Guantanamo Bay Prison in the Works

Press Secretary Josh Earnest confirmed White House plan to close the prison is being drafted

The Obama Administration is drafting a plan to finally close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, officials said Wednesday, racing against the clock to fulfill a long-delayed promise by President Obama before his time in office runs out.

“The Administration is in the final stages of drafting a plan to safely and responsibly close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and to present that plan to Congress,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday.

Earnest said closing the prison is in the national security interest of the United States.

One of Obama’s first moves as President was to pledge that the prison would close within his first year in office. But he has repeatedly been stymied by opposition from congressional Republicans to transferring or releasing prisoners from the site, which Obama has decried as a propaganda tool for terrorists because of the years suspected militants have spent there without trial.

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, a longtime proponent of closing the prison, wants to give the Obama Administration an opportunity to potentially do so through the National Defense Authorization Act. Under his plan, Congress would have the ability to review the White House’s plan for closing the prison. In the House, however, Republicans still angry about the exchange of American service member Bowe Bergdahl for Taliban detainees are pushing a plan that would make any attempts to transfer prisoners and close the prison more difficult. The White House, however, has threatened to veto the National Defense Authorization act and says Congress is still impeding efforts to close the prison.

Daphne Eviatar, senior counsel of national security at Human Rights First, said the fact that the White House is working plan could be a good first step, but questions still remain as to whether or not Congress will be able to approve any plan given many members’ opposition to closing the prison. “It’s still within the Administration’s power to do a lot to close the prison,” she said. “[The White House] can’t keep blaming Congress, but Congress also needs to do more. It shouldn’t be this political football anymore.”

There are currently 116 prisoners left in Guantanamo Bay prison, and about 800 men have been detained there since it began holding prisoners more than a decade ago. The American Civil Liberties Union says 51 of those men are still being imprisoned even though the government has cleared them for release.

Christopher Anders, senior legislative counsel at ACLU, said the plan being sent to Congress will constitute no more than an “irrelevant checking of the box.” He added that the president already has the executive authority to make detainee transfers happen without Congress.

“It’s not much different than plans that have already been sent and it’s not going to convince Congress to change its mind,” Anders said. “’Obama should tell the Secretary of Defense to approve the transfer of cleared detainees.”

Anders said the lack of transfers is the “number one obstacle” facing the president and that the Department of Defense is “digging in its heels” on closing the prison.


Doing Business In Cuba Just Got A Whole Lot Easier

A man drives his taxi past a Cultural Center with the word "Cuba" on it, in Havana, Cuba,, April 14, 2015
Desmond Boylan—AP A man drives his taxi past a Cultural Center in Havana on April 14, 2015

A Florida bank established the first connection with a Cuban counterpart since President Obama’s December decision to open up relations between the two nations.

Stonegate Bank and Banco Internacional de Comercio S.A. (BICSA) signed a deal on Tuesday in Havana that would establish a correspondent account for the Florida-based bank on the island, making it easier for U.S. companies doing business in Cuba to process transactions directly, reported the Wall Street Journal.

Correspondent accounts allow banks to send money back and forth across international borders. Some U.S. business transactions in Cuba use U.S. treasury licenses, but all commercial deals end up going through banks in third countries, adding another step to the process.

These kinds of accounts have come under close scrutiny by federal regulators due to their historical ties to money laundering and other criminal activities, and banks have been hesitant to work with counterparts in other nations that don’t have strong oversight of their banking systems. Cuba has been labeled “high-risk” by the Financial Action Task Force, an organization that supports policies to prevent money laundering.

“We did an extensive risk-management approach to this,” Stonegate Bank CEO Dave Seleski, told the Wall Street Journal. “We feel very comfortable that we did something that is very low risk.”

The move could be the first step toward closer financial ties between the two nations, including the eventual approval of the use of credit cards in Cuba. U.S. credit cards don’t currently work on the island, though the companies have said they would start processing transactions this year.

TIME Airbnb

Cuba Libre! Airbnb Stays In the Country Are Free This Week

APTOPIX Cuba Classic Cars Photo Gallery
Franklin Reyes—AP A man drives a classic American car on The Malecon in Havana, Cuba.

There are reportedly over 2,000 active Airbnb listings in Cuba

With the Cuban Embassy reopening in Washington, D.C., this week, room-sharing service Airbnb says it will cover the cost for U.S. travelers booked to stay in the country.

The Cuba refund will apply to trips booked prior to July 20 for travel between July 19 and July 26.

A trade embargo was lifted and travel to Cuba has been allowed once again after President Barack Obama enacted policy changes at the end of last year.

“In the most significant changes in our policy in more than fifty years, we will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” the White House said at the time. “Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people, and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.”

Nathan Blecharczyk, a co-founder and CTO of Airbnb, recently wrote for Fortune about Cuba’s economy. He said that since Airbnb started allowing listings in Cuba in April, there are over 2,000 rentals available.

“For the first time in decades, authorized U.S. travelers will have the chance to experience authentic Cuban hospitality at homes across the island,” an Airbnb blog post announced at the time. “Despite its proximity to the U.S., Cuba has been off limits to most Americans for over 50 years. Part of Cuba’s appeal to visitors is that it offers an experience unlike anything else.”

Airbnb announced its plan to pay for guests’ stays via Twitter.

It later clarified the specifics of the deal when customers pressed for more information.

TIME Culture

Watch People Dance Outside the Reopened Cuban Embassy

Cuba Embassy
Mark Wilson — Getty Images A supporter waves a Cuban flag in front of the country's embassy after it re-opened for the first time in 54 years in Washington, DC., July 20, 2015

The two nations resumed diplomatic relations on Monday

The Cuban embassy in Washington, D.C. reopened for the first time in half a century on Monday, and some people were so excited they were literally dancing in the streets.

The festivities were documented on social media, where people shared photos and videos of singing and dancing outside the embassy:

Party outside the Cuban Embassy!!

A video posted by Diana (@jimenez_trejo) on

Secretary of State John Kerry will visit Havana in August to for a flag-raising ceremony at the American embassy there; no word yet on whether he will sing and dance.


Watch Live: Cuban Embassy Opens in D.C.

After more than 50 years, the U.S. and Cuba are restoring diplomatic relations, with the Cuban government opening in embassy in D.C. on Monday morning.

Watch the embassy’s opening live above.


After Five Decades, Cuba and the U.S. Restore Full Diplomatic Ties

"It's a historic moment"

(WASHINGTON)—Cuba’s blue, red and white-starred flag was hoisted Monday at the country’s embassy in Washington in a symbolic move signaling the start of a new post-Cold War era in U.S.-Cuba relations.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez presided over the flag-raising ceremony hours after full diplomatic relations with the United States were restored at the stroke of midnight, when an agreement to resume normal ties on July 20 took effect. Earlier, without ceremony, the Cuban flag was hung in the lobby of the State Department alongside those of other countries with which the U.S. has diplomatic ties. U.S. and Cuban diplomats in Washington and Havana had also noted the upgrade in social media posts.

The United States and Cuba severed diplomatic relations in 1961 and since the 1970s had been represented in each other’s capitals by limited service interests sections. Their conversion to embassies tolled a knell for policy approaches spawned and hardened over the five decades since President John F. Kennedy first tangled with youthful revolutionary Fidel Castro over Soviet expansion in the Americas.

Rodriguez is to meet later with Secretary of State John Kerry and address reporters at a joint news conference. Kerry will travel to Havana Aug. 14 to preside over a flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy there.

Shortly after midnight, the Cuban Interests Section in Washington switched its Twitter account to say “embassy.” In Havana, the U.S. Interests Section uploaded a new profile pictures to its Facebook and Twitter accounts that says US EMBASSY CUBA. And, Conrad Tribble, the deputy chief of mission for the United States in Havana, tweeted: “Just made first phone call to State Dept. Ops Center from United States Embassy Havana ever. It didn’t exist in Jan 1961.”

Though normalization has taken center stage in the U.S.-Cuba relationship, there remains a deep ideological gulf between the nations and many issues still to resolve. Among them: thorny disputes such as over mutual claims for economic reparations, Havana’s insistence on the end of the 53-year-old trade embargo and U.S. calls for Cuba to improve on human rights and democracy. Some U.S. lawmakers, including several prominent Republican presidential candidates, have vowed not to repeal the embargo and pledged to roll back Obama’s moves on Cuba.

Still, Monday’s events cap a remarkable change of course in U.S. policy toward the communist island under President Barack Obama, who had sought rapprochement with Cuba since he first took office and has progressively loosened restrictions on travel and remittances to the island.

Shortly after midnight, the Cuban Interests Section in Washington switched its Twitter account to say “embassy.” In Havana, the U.S. Interests Section uploaded a new profile pictures to its Facebook and Twitter accounts that says US EMBASSY CUBA. And, Conrad Tribble, the deputy chief of mission for the United States in Havana, tweeted: “Just made first phone call to State Dept. Ops Center from United States Embassy Havana ever. It didn’t exist in Jan 1961.”

Obama’s efforts at engagement were frustrated for years by Cuba’s imprisonment of U.S. Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross on espionage charges. But months of secret negotiations led in December to Gross’s release, along with a number of political prisoners in Cuba and the remaining members of a Cuban spy ring jailed in the United States. On Dec. 17, Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced they would resume full diplomatic relations.

Declaring the longstanding policy a failure that had not achieved any of its intended results, Obama declared that the U.S. could not keep doing the same thing and expect a change. Thus, he said work would begin apace on normalization.

That process dragged on until the U.S. removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism in late May and then bogged down over issues of U.S. diplomats’ access to ordinary Cubans.

On July 1, however, the issues were resolved and the U.S. and Cuba exchanged diplomatic notes agreeing that the date for the restoration of full relations would be July 20.

Some 500 guests, including a 30-member delegation of diplomatic, cultural and other leaders from the Caribbean nation, attended the Cuban ceremony at the stately 16th Street mansion in Washington that has been operating as an interests section under the auspices of the Swiss embassy. The U.S. was represented at the event by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, who led U.S. negotiators in six months of talks leading to the July 1 announcement, and Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana who will now become charge d’affaires.

Although the Interests Section in Havana won’t see the pomp and circumstance of a flag-raising on Monday, workers there have already drilled holes on the exterior to hang signage flown in from the U.S., and arranged to print new business cards and letterhead that say “Embassy” instead of “Interests Section.” What for years was a lonely flagpole outside the glassy six-story edifice on Havana’s seafront Malecon boulevard recently got a rehab, complete with a paved walkway.

Every day for the last week, employees have been hanging hand-lettered signs on the fence counting down, in Spanish, to Monday: “In 6 days we will become an embassy!” and so on.


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