The first anniversary of U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, on December 17, 2015, was not marked by any ceremony in either country. Instead, public statements were issued by the White House, the U.S. State Department, the de facto U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, Jeffrey De Laurnetis. U.S. Senators and Representatives, Cuban officials and others. Nothing new or surprising was said in any of them.
On the anniversary date, President Obama released a statement on the subject. He said that during this year “we have taken important steps forward to normalize relations between our countries” that were detailed in the previously released FACT SHEET discussed below. The President continued, “We are advancing our shared interests and working together on complex issues that for too long defined—and divided—us. Meanwhile, the United States is in a stronger position to engage the people and governments of our hemisphere. Congress can support a better life for the Cuban people by lifting an embargo that is a legacy of a failed policy.” Nevertheless, “Change does not happen overnight, and normalization will be a long journey.”
The earlier White House FACT SHEET. listed the following eleven significant steps of normalization this past 12 months:
- U.S. “removal of Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism List;”
- “re-establishment of diplomatic relations and opening of embassies; “
- Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to Cuba;
- the establishment of the U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Steering Commission, which has produced a working relationship to protect the environment and manage marine protected areas in Cuba, Florida and the Gulf of Mexico; an expansion of counternarcotics cooperation, increased cooperation to prevent smuggling; an understanding to re-establish direct postal services between the two countries; and commencement of discussions on property claims;
- the commencement of talks to improve Cuban human rights;
- cooperation on medical relief to Haiti;
- easing of restrictions on U.S. citizens travel to Cuba, resulting in a 54% increase of such travel;
- easing of U.S. restrictions on commerce with Cuba;
- easing of U.S. restrictions on telecommunications and internet commerce with Cuba, resulting in several private business transactions to do just that;
- discussions to increase cooperation regarding security of trade and travel flows;
- U.S. support of Colombia-FARC peace talks monitored by Cuba; and
- The Administration’s continued advocacy for congressional ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba.
Benjamin J. Rhodes, Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, who participated in the secret talks that led to the rapprochement, said, “We went into this with no illusions that the Cubans were going to radically change their political system overnight, but our belief has been that greater engagement, greater people-to-people ties, greater commercial activity does open up space for the Cuban people. Part of what we are doing is raising people’s expectations, and that’s appropriate.”
Rhodes added, We reject this notion that our opening is a form of concession, because the opening is the whole point — we think it’s in our interest to have people traveling down to Cuba and doing business there. There’s a natural momentum to these things.”
President Obama himself last week stated that he hopes to visit Cuba during his last year in office, but only if enough progress has been made in bilateral relations, he is able to meet with political dissidents, and if he can possibly “nudge the Cuban government in a new direction.” In response, Josefina Vidal, an official in Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, said Obama would be welcome, but “Cuba has always said … it is not going to negotiate matters that are inherent to its internal system in exchange for an improvement in or the normalization of relations with the United States.” 
U.S. State Department 
The U.S. would like change to happen “more quickly” and to see “increased access information online.” In addition, the U.S. hopes that Cuba “will give their citizens more space so they can exercise freely their civil and political rights.”
The U.S. and Cuba “very soon” will start a pilot program for renewed direct mail service.
U.S.-Cuba negotiations on direct commercial flights between the two countries are near a successful conclusion “ very, very soon.” The discussions on damage claims have just started, but their resolution remains a “top [U.S.] priority for normalization.”
For progress on Cuban economic issues, the U.S. believes the April 2016 congress of the Communist Party of Cuba will be important.
“Safe, legal, and orderly [Cuban] migration remains a priority of the U.S.,” which has “done our best to comply” with accords with Cuba on that subject. But “the Administration at this point has no plans to alter our current migration policy toward Cuba and Cubans,” including the Cuban Adjustment Act.
The U.S. continues to encourage Cubans to go to the U.S. Embassy in Havana “for the several available avenues for legal migration to the U.S.” In addition, the U.S. is “encouraging governments in the region to find . . . coordinated and comprehensive solutions that focus on preventing the loss of life and ensuring that human rights of all migrants are respected and promoting orderly and humane migration policies.”
Mr. DeLaurentis, via teleconference from Havana, said, “A year ago President Obama “made it clear that our aspiration for the Cuban people remains that they enjoy a peaceful, prosperous, and democratic society.”
“Over the course of the past year, we have made good progress and come a long way. Our two countries have engaged in historic dialogue on a wide range of issues. We have discussed concrete objectives on civil aviation, direct transportation of mail, the environment, regulatory changes, and counter-narcotics and have either reached understandings on those topics or continue to narrow our differences in ways that suggest we could soon conclude such understandings.”
“One of the President’s goals in announcing the new approach to Cuba was to promote increased authorized travel, commerce, and the flow of information to the Cuban people. In that regard, we have seen an increase in authorized travel by U.S. citizens by over 50 percent. Our regulatory changes help promote a Cuban private sector that now accounts for at least one in four Cuban workers. And Cuba recently signed roaming agreements with two U.S. companies that promote the flow of information. But more could be done on the Cuban side to take advantage of new openings.”
“A year ago, we had very limited engagement with the Cuban Government. Now we are in open conversation on issues that matter to the United States.” This includes working “together to combat transnational crime, protect our shared ecosystem, and create opportunities for the people in both nations to thrive.”
“However, we still have areas of disagreement. . . . such as property claims, fugitives, and human rights.. . . Still, the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the opening of our embassy have given us a more effective platform through which to promote U.S. interests and values on those and all bilateral issues. It is worth recalling [that] Secretary Kerry noted during the flag-raising ceremony in August – normalization will not happen overnight.”
“The President last year called on the Cuban Government to unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on their political, social, and economic activities. The Administration has taken a number of steps within the President’s authority to support a growing private sector in Cuba and strengthen people-to-people ties. The President has called on Congress to end the embargo.”
U.S. Senators and Representatives
Senators Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) and Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ), both of whom have been to Cuba several times this past year, sent a letter to President Obama urging further loosening of U.S. travel, export and financial restrictions with Cuba. 
On the other hand, Cuban-American Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, both of whom have been persistent critics of normalization, offered objections to what they saw as failed policies.”
On December 17 Cuba’s Foreign Ministry released a statement that concluded, “To achieve normal relations between the two countries, the [U.S.] must remove, without any conditions, the economic, commercial and financial blockade which for decades the U.S. has maintained against Cuba. Nor can one speak of normalization, while the illegally occupied Guantanamo Naval Base and other policies of the past that are harmful to the sovereignty of Cuba are not removed.“
Earlier, Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Relations’ Director General for the United States, said, “We can say that Cuba and the United States have made progress in their relations, with a marked difference from the preceding stage,” She noted progress in the political and diplomatic fields with the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, the reopening of embassies and the removal of the island from the U.S. list of countries sponsoring terrorism. She also highlighted the personal meetings between the leaders of Cuba and the U.S.
More specifically she said the two countries were close to concluding an agreement for civil aviation and had expanded or created cooperation in search and rescue; the fight against drug trafficking; migration; port maritime security, application and enforcement of the law; and health.
On the other hand, she commented, there is more to do. The U.S. needs to end the embargo, return Guantanamo Bay to Cuba, stop “subversive programs and illegal broadcasting” as well as abolish its special immigration policies regarding Cubans.
Vidal concluded that “even with the differences that exist between our countries, better links will only bring benefits to both countries and their peoples. We really believe that a model of civilized coexistence is the best contribution that we can leave the present and future generations of Cuba, the U.S. and the entire region.
Everyone, supporters and critics of normalization, agrees that change has been slow and that much more needs to be done to facilitate a complete normalization. Nevertheless, as two experts on this relationship recognize, there has been progress.
Julia E. Sweig, a Cuba specialist and senior research fellow at the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, observed, “It was just pure fantasy to think, as it has been for the last 60 years, that the United States could directly shape the nature of the Cuban political system. It feels like we’re getting excited about tiny steps, but those tiny steps, against the backdrop of the thicket of laws and regulations that have produced a ‘no’ as the answer to any question, and now we’re figuring out how to get to ‘yes’ — that’s progress.”
Scott D. Gilbert, a Washington-based lawyer who helped negotiate Cuba’s release last year of Alan Gross, said, “When you stand back and look at this against the backdrop of almost 60 years of complete adversity, complete lack of dialogue, absolute distrust, it’s been a remarkable year. But there is frustration and disappointment on both sides that more deals haven’t gotten done. It’s a process that still needs a lot of work.”
Alan Gross himself stated, “Our relations will not be normalized for some years to come, will not be totally normalized. But I believe that both governments are working towards that, We need to be patient to see this relationship evolve.” He specifically wants to see the U.S. end its embargo of Cuba, which is “stupid” and a “complete and utter failure.”
Jeanne Lemkau, a clinical psychologist and professor emerita of family medicine, commented on her 12th trip to Cuba, this October, to the central and eastern part of the island. She saw a creative example of the Cuban entrepreneurial initiative: a young man peddling shoes from a carefully arranged display on the top of a jeep chassis, snuggly parked next to his house. In addition, she saw many people using laptops and mobile phones; homes freshly painted in lovely Caribbean colors, a luxury that was once far beyond the resources of most Cubans; beautifully renovated hotels; and recently cleaned streets.
As a strong advocate for U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, I too have mixed feelings on this first anniversary. I am glad that one year ago both countries decided to pursue normalization, that the previously mentioned steps towards normalization have been taken and that the normalization process is continuing. On the other hand, I am especially disappointed that the U.S. has not yet ended its embargo of the island and its special immigration benefits for Cubans.
 White House, Statement of the President on the Anniversary of Cuba Policy Changes (Dec. 17, 2015); Obama, Statement by President Obama on the anniversary of the changes in policy toward Cuba, Granma (Dec. 17, 2015); White House, FACT SHEET: One-Year Anniversary of the President’s Policy of Engagement with Cuba (Dec. 16, 2015); Davis, Year After Cuba-U.S. Thaw, Obama Says Change Will Take Time, N.Y. Times (Dec. 16, 2015). Assoc. Press, Marking Anniversary, Obama Says Long Journey for US, Cuba, N.Y. Times (Dec. 17, 2015); Reuters, Obama Says U.S., Cuba Continue to Have Differences, N.Y. Times (Dec. 17, 2015).
 Reuters, Obama Says May Visit Cuba in 2016 if Citizens Enjoy More Freedoms, N.Y. Times (Dec. 14, 2015); Reuters, Cuba Says Obama Welcome to Visit but Not to Meddle, N.Y. Times (Dec. 17, 2015).http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2015/12/17/world/americas/17reuters-cuba-usa.html
 U.S. State Dep’t, Background Briefing on the Progress Made Toward the Normalization of U.S.-Cuba Relations (Dec. 15, 2015).
 U.S. State Dep’t, Special Briefing by Jeffrey DeLaurentis on the One-Year Anniversary of the President’s Policy of Engagement with Cuba (Dec. 15, 2015).
 Flake, Flake, Leahy Urge President to Expand U.S. Engagement with Cuba on Anniversary of Renewed Relations (Dec. 16, 2015); Schwartz, Senators Urge Obama Administration to Further Loosen Cuba Rules, W.S.J. (Dec. 16, 2015).
 Ros-Lehtinen, One Year Later, Obama’s Cuba Policy Has Proven To Be A Sham and Cubans Are No Closer To Freedom and Democracy, Says Ros-Lehtinen (Dec. 16, 2015); Diaz-Balart, One Year Later: The Results of Obama’s Concessions to the Castros (Dec. 17, 2015).
 Cuba Foreign Ministry, Editorial: The lifting of the blockade is essential for a normal relationship (Dec. 17, 2015); Gomez, Josefina Vidal assures that Cuba and the U.S. have made progress, Granma (Dec. 17, 2015); Elizalde, Josefina Vidal: Significant progress has been recorded between Cuba and the US, CubaDebate (Dec. 16, 2015). Granma also published commentaries on the first anniversary by the Cuban Five, Gomez et al., A year in which freedom fits all, Granma (Dec. 17, 2015). Another article provided commentary on the embargo. Gomez, A year later, the blockade is still there, Granma (Dec. 17, 2015).
 Davis, One Year After Cuba-U.S. Thaw, Obama Says Change Will Take Time, N.Y. Times (Dec. 16, 2015).
 Assoc. Press, American Marks 1 Year Since Being Freed From Cuban Prison, N.Y. Times (Dec. 17, 2015).