On Wednesday, Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced the most profound change in relations between the United States and Cuba in decades.
Why now? What explains the timing of this historic change to a policy in place for over half a century? The short answer is that the decision to restore diplomatic ties between the two countries was driven by a surprising convergence of biology and technology. Biology dictated the aging of the Castro brothers and other leaders of their revolutionary generation in Cuba, as well as the graying of the Cuban exile population in Florida. This dynamic altered old political balances both inside the Cuban regime and in U.S. electoral politics. Technology—especially innovations in the extraction of shale oil and gas—allowed the United States to upend the world’s energy map and push down the price of oil, thus undermining the ability of Venezuela, a major oil-exporter, to continue providing a lifeline to Cuba’s bankrupt economy. Cuba needed an economic alternative, and the U.S. became one.
The United States first enacted its economic embargo on Cuba in 1961 with the explicit purpose of ousting the Castro regime. In 1996, the policy was hardened with the passage of the Helms-Burton act, which tightened the embargo and sought international sanctions against the regime in an effort to unseat Castro and bring democracy to the island. It didn’t work. Not only did the Helms-Burton act fail to attain its goals, but it also constrained the White House’s foreign-policy options. Both the Clinton and Bush administrations were stymied in their ability to make any significant changes to a law that was shaped more by narrow calculations related to U.S. domestic politics than by a broader view of U.S. national interests in the hemisphere. Specifically, Republican and Democratic politicians sought the support of the large population of Cuban exiles who voted in the swing state of Florida, and resisted efforts to change or liberalize some of the most stringent conditions of Helms-Burton.