Consequences of the US-Cuba rapprochement
Following president Barack Obama’s announcement that the United States will begin normalising relations with Cuba, John Paul Rathbone, Latin America editor, joins Gideon Rachman to examine how quickly the island state’s Soviet-style economy is likely to change and the implications for the wider region.

The move by US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, to announce the tentative resumption of diplomatic relations is already prompting talk that the world’s oldest trade embargo may be coming to an end.

Introduced in 1960, the US embargo of Cuba has hit the island economy of 11m people hard over the decades. In its annual report to the United Nations on the subject Cuba in September estimated it lost $3.9bn in foreign trade in 2013 alone because of the embargo. Havana’s running tally for the total economic damage: $116.8bn.

That figure is obviously worth taking with a pinch of salt, as should be any idea that the embargo is going to be lifted soon.

But there is no doubt that a change in US policy would represent a huge economic opportunity for Cuba or that the potential looks alluring to plenty of businesses in the US. Here are some points to keep in mind and some charts worth pondering: Read more

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By Vincent Boland

It is the event that the Irish cannot put behind them. Six years ago, the country’s banks collapsed, and brought Ireland down with them. An official inquiry into what happened, and why, and who was responsible, got under way in Dublin on Wednesday. There is no guarantee that it will shed any new light on the affair. Read more

John Aglionby

Russian President Vladimir Putin gives his annual press conference on Thursday as his government and the central bank struggle to contain the turmoil engulfing the nation’s economy. He is also expected to face scrutiny over Russian involvement in Ukraine. Last year’s event lasted more than four hours.

By Jack Farchy, Courtney Weaver, John Aglionby and Claer Barrett

 

Gideon Rachman

When the Republicans took control of both houses of Congress last month, the conventional wisdom was that the final two years of Barack Obama’s time in the White House would be a sad affair. The president would be a “lame duck” – with no majority in Congress and waning authority, even over his own party. Some even suggested that Mr Obama was losing interest in his job.

Just a few weeks later, however, it seems that far from being crippled by the midterm elections, Mr Obama has been liberated. With no further elections to fight, he seems to have decided to use his last two years in office to advance some causes that he really believes in. By finding areas where he has executive authority to act without needing Congressional approval, the president has shown that he can get a lot done. His decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba is the latest dramatic example. Read more

John Paul Rathbone

US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy signs the order of naval blockade of Cuba, on October 24, 1962 in White House. Getty.

It was on February 7 1962 that John F Kennedy signed the US policy now known as the Cuban embargo into law. The day before, the US president had ordered an aide to buy him 1,000 Petit Upmanns cigars. It was only after Kennedy got word that his request had been carried out that he authorised the new regulations that banned Cuban imports and would have made the purchase illegal.

Today, 52 years later, Barack Obama has partially reversed that law. The changes he has made do not amount to a full repeal of the embargo – that requires an act of Congress. Nonetheless, the changes are profound. They recognise that US policy towards the island has failed to achieve its objective of change – Mr Obama is, after all, the 11th US president to face a socialist Cuba. They recognise that the embargo has often poisoned US diplomacy in the broader region. And the changes recognise that, for over half a century, the US embargo has been emblematic of Washington’s bully-boy approach to the socialist island, which has won Cuba international sympathy that the dictatorship of the Castro brothers would otherwise not have enjoyed. Read more

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In our Reporting Back series, we ask FT foreign correspondents to tell us about a recent trip. Katrina Manson, the FT’s east Africa correspondent, tells us about her visit to Juba, the capital of South Sudan.

Why now?

A year after civil war ignited in South Sudan, peace talks are continuing, with little prospect of a lasting deal. I went to Juba to mark the December anniversary of the start of the war and to find how the capital of the world’s newest country is coping, and also to see the work of the International Rescue Committee, the FT’s partner for this year’s seasonal appeal.

What impression did you take away about the situation on the ground?

Billboards across Juba honour those who gave their lives for South Sudan’s freedom – the country seceded from the Khartoum regime to the north in 2011 after decades of fighting. “Your freedom is the price of our blood,” says one. Others evoke unity: “We are many tribes, but one nation; We need each other to build a strong and united country.”

But they look like sorry prophecies. The civil war sparked by a political and military fallout last December quickly set ethnic groups against one another in five of the country’s 10 states. Residents of the ethnically mixed capital now live in an atmosphere of mistrust. Read more

Tony Barber

Almost exactly 15 years ago, on December 29, 1999, Vladimir Putin – then Russia’s prime minister and on the verge of promotion to the presidency – published a 5,000-word “mission statement” that summed up what he saw as the enduring values of the Russian people.

With the rouble dropping like a sack of Volga valley potatoes and the increasing threat to the Putin era’s social contract – “I make you wealthier and let you travel abroad, but I stay in power indefinitely and you don’t demand political freedom” – it is worth taking another look at the so-called Millennium Message. Read more