Intern Post – What Thawing U.S.-Cuba Relations Could Mean to Pittsburgh

Matthew Frey is a Fall Intern at the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh. He has been working heavily on research for our World Affairs Institute, which focuses on Cuba this year. In the post below, Matt provides a brief background on the thawing of U.S.-Cuba relations, as well as what this may mean for Pittsburgh.

Barack Obama and Raul Castro

Following the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and subsequent rise of Fidel Castro’s socialist 26th of July Movement, the United States was one of many countries worldwide to respond by severing diplomatic ties with Cuba. Additionally, due to the widespread fear of Communist subversion brought on by the Cold War as well as Cuba’s nationalization of American oil refineries on its land, U.S. President John F. Kennedy acted swiftly to ensure that the United States had placed an embargo prohibiting almost all exports and imports to and from Cuba by early 1962. The goal of the embargo was to damage the Cuban economy, with hopes of generating unrest among the Cuban population and thereby undermining Cuba’s communist government.

The early 1970s saw many countries begin to renew diplomatic relations with Cuba and lift their own embargos that had existed for nearly twenty years to that point. But considering that Cuba was an agent to the Soviet Union’s own communist government, the United States saw Cuba as a security threat and did not seriously consider restoring diplomacy or lifting the embargo.

Despite the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States maintained its restrictions on Cuba through the 1990s, 2000s, and into the 2010s. Finally, on December 17, 2014, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro announced that the two countries had begun the process of normalizing relations. On July 20, 2015, diplomatic relationships were officially restored by the re-opening of the U.S. embassy in Havana and the Cuban embassy in Washington.

Newly opened Cuban Embassy in D.C.

Although the embassies have re-opened, the embargo still remains. Some argue that the embargo is outdated, seeing as though Cuba is currently an impoverished nation of about 11 million that, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, no longer poses a significant security threat to the United States. In fact, each year since 1992, the United Nations has overwhelmingly passed a resolution condemning the embargo and declaring it to be in violation of the charter of the United Nations and international law. Recently, even Presidents Obama and Castro have spoken out in favor of bringing the five-decades-long embargo to an end.

What might this mean for Pittsburgh? Though the city of Pittsburgh does not have a large Cuban population, this warming of US-Cuba relations is still significant to the region. Like those in many other American cities, private-sector businesses in Pittsburgh are very eager to explore business relations with the Caribbean island country should the embargo be lifted in the near future.

In May of 2015, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto traveled to Cuba with a group of business executives from Western Pennsylvania. Catalyst Connection, an Oakland-based manufacturing consulting firm, organized and funded the mayor’s trip. The objective of the trip, according to Catalyst Connection President and CEO Petra Mitchell was to “facilitate trade and exporting between Pittsburgh based manufacturing companies and the Cuban government by establishing critical business relationships for the day when the embargo is lifted.” Additionally, there is growing demand among tourists to visit Cuba. In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Paul Busang of a local travel agency called Gulliver’s Travels is quoted as saying that there is “pent-up demand” to visit Cuba.

There still remains a number of obstacles in normalizing business and travel relations, however. The embargo will remain in effect until Congress takes action to lift it. Numerous lobbies in South Florida that staunchly oppose warming up to the Castro regime may make it difficult for Congress to take significant action toward completely normalizing relations. There is also very high risk associated with private capital being invested in Cuba’s communist dictatorship and outdated banking system. In spite of the obstacles and risks, the city of Pittsburgh, as well as other cities in America, seems to be ready and eager to immediately reap the economic benefits that would come with normalized relations with Cuba.

Resources for more information:

“The Cuban Revolution of ‘1959’”

US Dept. of State: “U.S. relations with Cuba”

“U.S., Cuba make new effort toward normal ties”

“President asks Congress to lift the embargo against Cuba”

“Cuba: How new relationship will affect Americans”