A year has passed since President Obama proposed normalizing relations with Cuba, re-opening our embassies, and creating more opportunities for our two peoples to engage with one another. This was a dramatic change in policy, but it represented no change in our aspiration for Cuban citizens – that they be given a chance to live in a peaceful, prosperous, open, and democratic society.
Since then, a lot has happened. Most notably, in July in Washington and the following month in Havana – ceremonies were held to mark the re-opening of our embassies after a period of 54 years. As the flags went up, so did our hopes for a new era in which policies and attitudes will be driven not by past animosities but by mutual interests. Walking along the streets of Old Havana, and seeing the faces of young Cubans, I felt the futility of trying to make them fit their dreams into a Cold War straitjacket. They deserve more than that and – through our diplomacy – we hope to help them achieve more than that.
In the past, U.S.-Cuba dialogue was narrow, relatively sterile, and rare. Over the past year, it has been comprehensive, businesslike, and routine. Our diplomats have sat down and talked productively about a wide range of matters, including civil aviation, mail deliveries, environmental issues, trafficking in illegal drugs, and other aspects of transnational crime. The results, in many areas, have been encouraging, though much work remains.
In 2015, authorized travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba increased by more than 50 percent over the previous year. We have further empowered a Cuban private sector that now employs at least one in four Cuban workers. And the Government of Cuba signed a cellular telephone roaming agreement with a U.S. company that promotes the more open flow of information. Images of Cubans gathering around the country’s few WiFi hot spots to connect with family or friends around the world show a palpable desire to be more plugged in.
In all of our discussions, we have encouraged the Cuban government to do more to take advantage of our regulatory openings and to give their citizens greater economic independence by making it easier for them to start businesses, engage in trade, access information online, and express their opinions without fear of harassment or arrest.
One topic of particular interest this past year was immigration. U.S. policy, which has not changed, emphasizes the safe, legal, and orderly migration of Cubans to the United States. Both the U.S. and Cuban governments are concerned by the efforts of human traffickers to exploit the fears of some Cubans and to encourage a mass exodus to the United States. We are in regular discussions with Havana about how to prevent smuggling organizations from achieving their illicit aims.
Meanwhile, our two governments have reached an understanding on the near-term expansion of flights between the United States and Cuba, to include scheduled service. This arrangement will facilitate growth in authorized travel and enhance people-to-people links. We also agreed on a plan to re-establish direct postal service between our countries through the implementation of a pilot plan. In addition, we signed a memorandum of understanding to cooperate on marine protected areas in Cuba, Florida, and the Gulf of Mexico and signed a joint statement on cooperation to protect the environment.
Without exception, our conversations with Cuba have been constructive in clarifying if not always narrowing differences. In fact, the most important conversations may well be those where we continue to disagree. We’ve engaged with our Cuban counterparts on the most challenging of issues, including democracy, human rights, and political prisoners. It’s important to remember that the re-opening of embassies and the start of normalization is not a favor one country does for another. It stems, instead, from a realization that both countries can benefit from regular communication and a good faith effort to solve problems.
The United States and Cuba remain far apart on some very important matters. But we are much closer than we were in our determination to address those matters in a systematic and mutually respectful way. Looking ahead, the United States will continue to pursue more productive relations with the Cuban government, while pressing, as well, for changes in policy and approach that will yield tangible benefits for the Cuban people.
Secretary of State