The Cuban government has announced historic changes to its migration policy, allowing Cubans greater freedom to travel and work abroad.
The move comes 50 years after the Cuban missile crisis nearly led to a US invasion of Cuba, marking the beginning of five decades of hostility between the two nations that has kept families apart and fuelled dangerous fear and paranoia on both sides.
The US embargo still wreaks havoc on Cuba's economy, and the Cuban government's human rights abuses and silencing of political dissent continues.
But the recent news is still encouraging. After refusing to talk for more than a half century, signs are emerging that relations between the two nations are slowly beginning to thaw.
50 tense years ... and counting
The US and Cuba – just 160 km apart – have a long and complicated past. In 1959, when Fidel Castro came into power in Cuba, the US recognised his government and welcomed him to to Washington. But the good relations didn't last long: after Castro nationalised private companies, seized private land and expanded trade with the Soviet Union, the US began a series of unsuccessful attempts to overthrow Castro's government.
The crisis came to a head during a 12-day standoff in October 1962, with Cuba and the Soviet Union on one side and the US on the other. After the US discovered nuclear missiles on Cuban soil (installed by the Soviet Union), the two nations came dangerously close to a nuclear war. The impasse ended when US President John F Kennedy pledged not to invade Cuba and to remove US missiles from Turkey; it was a critical climb-down that prevented an unthinkable conflict.
Although the offending missiles were out of Cuba six months later, the two countries' ill relations didn't improve. In multiple attempts to weaken Castro's rule (and thereby stop his socialist policies from spreading throughout Latin America), the US has imposed prolonged economic sanctions on the country and sought to isolate it diplomatically, designating it a state sponsor of terrorism.
Over the following 30 years, the US has continually strengthened its stiff trade embargo, which has been overwhelmingly condemned by most UN member states. The US has also applied the embargo to all foreign countries that trade with Cuba, destroying its economy. The ban is estimated to have cost the island nation more than $100bn.
Not surprisingly, these policies have not made the US many friends in Cuba, and Castro has become known (and loved by many) for his willingness to stand up to perceived US imperialist policies. These popular positions are a part of what allowed Castro to stay in power for two generations, outlasting nine US presidents – despite the fact that his rule has been repressive, and he has failed to improve quality of life for most Cubans.
A relic of a bygone era?
In recent years, however, there have been hopeful signs that Cuba is liberalising. President Raul Castro (who took over the presidency in 2006) has loosened the state's hold on the economy, allowing small businesses to operate and enabling foreign investors to purchase Cuban real estate (although this last reform is a double-edged sword). Fidel Castro made it clear that these reforms were there to stay in 2010, when he told the Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg that "the Cuban model doesn't even work for us anymore."
The US has also started to ease its restrictions. In 2001, the US began selling food to Cuba after a hurricane hit the country, and the US is now Cuba's major food supplier and its seventh largest trading partner. Then last year, President Barack Obama eased limits on US residents' visits to Cuba, allowing Cubans to send remittances to their families for the first time and partially easing the US's economic embargo.
But the reality is that the majority of the economic sanctions remain – and the US still offers Cubans automatic residency when they arrive on US soil, a major bone of contention.
Free(er) to travel
Things started to look more hopeful as the 50 year anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis arrived this week. According to Cuba’s state-owned Granma newspaper, from 14 January Cubans will no longer need to apply for an exit visa in order to leave the country, nor will they have to present a letter of invitation from a resident of their desired destination.
The new law will require Cubans to submit only a valid passport and a visa from their destination in order to travel. But it will also continue to restrict travel for doctors, scientists and members of the military in order to prevent brain drain. Or, as Granma puts it: "Measures will remain to preserve the human capital created by the Revolution in the face of the theft of talent applied by the powerful."
While US visa requirements for Cubans remain the same, the US State Department welcomed the move, embracing "any reforms that will allow Cubans to depart from and return to their country freely". Many expect a parallel shift in US policy on this front soon as well.
Yet despite these positive signs, the Cuban government continues its long-standing policy of arresting dissidents and journalists and, according to Human Rights Watch, remains the only country in Latin America to repress almost all forms of political dissent. As recently as 2011, the government was found to be using detentions, beatings, forced exile and travel restrictions as a tactic to curb government opposition.
What could really make a difference here?
Relations could significantly improve if the US agreed to take Cuba off its list of state sponsors of terrorism, in response to Cuba's help with fostering peace talks in Colombia. The US made similar moves with North Korea and Libya in recent years.
But dramatic, lasting change will only come once the crippling embargo – called a "blockade" by most Cubans – is lifted. And this would have to pass the hurdle of the US Congress. The opinions of American lawmakers on the matter ebb and flow with the political climate, but there are a group of Republican lawmakers who remain steadfastly anti-Castro.
Other facts matter, too. Castro remains an inspiration for other Latin American leaders like Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian President Evo Morales, who have also challenged US policy in the region. In that vein, US influence in Cuba – and Latin America more broadly – is waning as countries no longer rely on the US for investment, looking instead to India, China and Russia.
Nevertheless, with $2.5bn in annual remittances from US exiles to relatives in Cuba, and growing interest among Cuban Americans in returning home, it may be that warmer bilateral ties continue to develop even without further action by politicians. And if that helps to end a conflict that started 50 years ago, it has to be a good thing.
Read more: The Christian Science Monitor has some excellent analysis of the ways leftist ideology lives on in Latin America, 50 years after the Cuban missile crisis.
And check out this piece by the Washington Post, which outlines what really happened in 1962 – and how misreadings on both sides exacerbated the crisis.
Sources: TIME, Christian Science Monitor, Gulf News, Havana Journal, New Yorker, Atlantic, BBC, Granma, AP, Miami Herald, HRW, FT, Avaaz, CFR, Washington Post