The move towards strengthening relations between the US and Cuba has been in the offing for about a year or so and is not a complete surprise but is an important step for the two nations. A US Senate Report of 2009 indicated reduced support for the trade embargo's failure to destabilise the Cuban government. Yet, this is a breakthrough moment, most importantly for the trade embargo – the longest in history – but there are still highly sensitive issues that are yet to be resolved between the countries.
There are major human rights conflicts, questions over whether the US will apologise for assassination attempts and CIA sabotage and of course many hurdles to overcome to lift the trade embargo. Clearly, one of the biggest areas of uncertainty now is when the embargo will be removed. It has been in place since 1960 and has had a massive effect on the Cuban economy. The impact on costs of medicines in Cuba, due to scarcity of key imports, has led to epidemics, chronic disease and other health impacts, especially on men, as Cuba focuses scarce resources on women and children.
Yet, the Cuban health system has shown a resilience that is remarkable, despite the embargo, due to its socialised character, state food rationing, and a highly educated population.
Looking at the issue of trade helps to shed light on the timing of the announcement. As Obama said, the past policy of 'isolation' hasn't worked because others have violated it. The US has felt increasingly frozen out of Cuban trade opportunities that have resulted from economic reforms, especially as the EU is moving in through trade and other agreements. This has left the US becoming increasingly isolated while also increasing EU political influence.
China is moving into Cuban economic development while Brazil, a key regional rival to the US, is also moving into the Cuban economy with major trade deals. Florida businessmen, including Cuban exiles, have also favoured reopening of ties with the USA.
There has been ongoing pressure from the UN, with the General Assembly consistently voting for lifting the trade embargo. However, even as recently as November 2014 the US voted against other UN states on the matter with only Israel backing the US in a 188-2 vote.
The timing of the move to improve diplomatic relations could also be linked with other international factors, which are not reflecting well on the President. Obama may be looking for a legacy achievement in the second half of his final term. Nothing else is going as planned – Ukraine, Iraq, ISIS and Syria – so this could be a cheap goal to score.
In assessing the potential problems ahead we should not forget arguments over human rights. Obama still cites these issues in Cuba, yet the country is seen as a beacon of health humanitarianism around South America and Africa. Cuba sends abroad tens of thousands of doctors to assist weaker states and it has more doctors and health workers in Ebola-hit nations in West Africa than any other country. However, I am not sure if US human rights stand much scrutiny after Guantanamo, Bagram, Abu Ghraib, and the most recent US Senate report into CIA torture programmes.
There is also still the question of whether the US will apologise for the eight attempts it made to assassinate Fidel Castro in the 1960s. We also don’t know if the US will apologise for a wide range of economic sabotage and damage, by CIA and other US forces, which were carried out in attempts to destabilise the Castro administration after the 1959 revolution.
And Republican opposition in Congress has already begun - with support from some Democrats. Some of them are saying that they will refuse to ratify the appointment of a US ambassador to the tiny island state that has been under virtual siege by the US for over 50 years. Yet, the majority of second-generation Cuban-Americans want the restoration of normal relations with the 'old country'.
In the broader sense, what could this development say about the current view of US international authority? The country has tried to overthrow the Cuban government since the Bay of Pigs – military invasion, assassination attempts, spraying poisonous chemicals on Cuban crops, cutting aid to any third world nations that dared to help Cuba, and through a crippling trade embargo.
This move represents an admission of the limits of US power against a minnow state.