Obama’s Foreign Policy: Cuba and Russia

Edited by Cheyenne Cheng
Written by Steven Spear, Jr.


Then-Senator Obama made a promise to restore diplomatic relations with countries like Cuba and Russia during the 2008 Democratic Primary. His opponents thought this desire showed his inability to grasp foreign policy. They were wrong, and Obama will be remembered throughout history for extending a helping hand to countries around the world.



Cuba-United States relations deteriorated in 1959 when Fidel Castro came to power. Castro was suspicious of capitalism and Western influence (particularly U.S. influence), he embraced the Soviet Union (a staunch enemy of the U.S.) as a close ally, and he authorized the government to unlawfully seize property belonging to U.S. corporations. This led to the U.S. stopping all trade and cutting off diplomatic relations with Cuba. There was no change in this relationship for nearly sixty years.

Due to failing health, Fidel Castro’s brother, Raul Castro, became the President of Cuba in 2008. In 2014, a prisoner exchange occurred between the U.S. and Cuba, and President Obama announced that the two countries would begin normalizing relations. It is worthy to note that Cuba’s economy had been dependent on subsidies from oil-rich countries, and when oil prices began to collapse in 2014, these countries were no longer able to give Cuba money. Castro needed to find a new source of revenue, and gaining access to business and trade from the Unites States seemed to be the country’s best and only option. Since the normalization began: Cuba was removed from the State Department’s “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list, embassies have re-opened in both countries, some travel and trade restrictions have been lifted, and the U.S. is helping Cuba  to integrate itself into the world economy.

This sudden change in Cuba policy was met with sharp criticism from congressional Republicans. In reference to Castro’s government impoverishing the country and abusing the human rights of the Cuban people, Florida Senator Marco Rubio said, “diplomatic recognition provides legitimacy to a government that does not deserve it.”



After World War II in 1949, the United States and Western Europe formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to combat the growing influence and aggression of the Soviet Union—it was taking over countries in Eastern Europe. The goal of NATO is deterrence in that if any country attacks a NATO member, the twenty-seven other NATO countries must come to its aid. The U.S. joining NATO soured relations with the Soviet Union, and over the next forty years, these two global superpowers struggled to overtake the other in a Cold War (a conflict between nations consisting of sanctions, espionage, and proxy wars as opposed to direct military action). In 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved, renamed itself the Russian Federation, and enjoyed improving relations with the United States until Vladmir Putin became the President of Russia in 1999.

Putin rightly believed that the U.S. encouraged anti-Russian protests that caused Georgia and Ukraine to become independent of Russia and seek integration with Western Europe and the United States. He believed that the U.S. was disrupting Russia’s sphere of influence, and the distrust between the two countries began to grow. In 2007, then-President Bush (43) revealed plans to build a ballistic missile defense system in Poland if Iran or North Korea ever fired a nuclear missile. With Poland being a mere five hundred miles away from Russia, Putin thought that the defense system was yet another American attempt to disrupt Russian influence in Eastern Europe. Putin said the missile defense system heightened tensions between the two countries and compared the situation to the Soviet Union setting up missiles in Cuba in 1962—causing the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The presidential elections in both countries saw Dmitry Medvedev becoming President of Russia in 2008  and Barack Obama becoming President of the United States in 2009. This new leadership proved to be a fresh start: There was cooperation in reducing each countries’ declared number of nuclear weapons and ensuring that Iran does not build a nuclear weapon. The U.S. also helped Russia gain better trade deals by supporting the country joining the World Trade Organization. The good times did not last, however, when Putin (who had just been elected as President again) accused Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration of inciting protests in Russia after the 2011 Russian legislative elections. The reasons for the protests were corruption in the Russian government and allegations of a fraudulent election. To be clear, Putin was accusing Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration of interfering in Russian elections.

With Putin back in power, Russia-U.S. relations were breaking down once again: Russia began building ballistic missiles; in 2013, Russia granted political asylum to Edward Snowden (a wanted NSA contractor who revealed classified U.S. government surveillance programs); in 2014, the U.S. condemned the Russian annexation of Crimea, an autonomous region within Ukraine; and Russia supported Bashar al-Assad’s government in its fight against the U.S.-backed rebels in the Syrian Civil War.

In 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton accused the Russian government of hacking the Democratic National Committee and releasing their emails. She claimed this was Putin’s revenge for her criticism of his election as President of Russia in 2011. President Obama imposed financial sanctions on top Russian intelligence officials and removed thirty-five suspected Russian spies from the United States. Putin labelled these actions as “unfriendly” and responded by saying that “the restoration of Russian-American relations will be built on the basis of the policy which the administration of President Donald Trump will carry out.”

Throughout the 2016 election season, Donald Trump suggested that he would work to repair the United States’ relationship with Putin and Russia. Despite evidence from the U.S. intelligence community showing that Putin purposefully conspired to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, Trump showed his commitment to becoming friendly with Russia by nominating Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State—the top diplomat of the United States. Tillerson became personally connected to Putin during his tenure as CEO of Exxon-Mobil. In a welcome show of bipartisanship, many Senate Republicans and Democrats have united in opposition to warming relations with Putin.


So only Cuba accepted President Obama’s helping hand. That’s okay. He did what no one thought was possible. Obama’s strategy was to help first and push for a shift towards democracy later. It was and still is quite controversial, and we must watch closely in the coming years to see if Obama made the right decision.


Continue reading about Obama’s Foreign Policy: the Middle East

Continue reading about Obama’s Foreign Policy: ISIS and the Iran Nuclear Deal


One comment

  1. […] Cuba seems to be open to warming relations, and Iran had to accept changes in its nuclear program before relations improved. To learn more about what’s going on with Cuba and Russia, read the ihpubs article here. […]


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