President Obama has finally reversed what he called the “failed policy” of isolating Cuba, announcing today (December 17) the start of normal relations. “These 50 years [without official relations] have shown that isolation has not worked,” said Obama. “It’s time for a new approach.” Raul Castro, speaking at the same time as Obama, agreed, commending Obama for his “respect and acknowledgment of our people.” Castro called for the removal of the embargo as the next step toward genuine reconciliation.
Obama’s courageous policy change is long overdue. Blocking diplomatic relations, commerce, and travel with Cuba are based on events long ago, he said. Left unsaid is that every US president since Eisenhower held secret talks with Cuban officials about resuming relations, to no avail. When Obama’s turn came, he hinted at a change of course last year, telling dinner guests in Miami that “we have to continue to update our policies . . . in the age of the internet, Google and world travel, [the old approach] doesn’t make sense.” In Havana, Raul Castro echoed that view and urged mutual respect. Soon after, he and Obama shook hands at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela in South Africa, raising hopes of an accord. (On the long history of negotiations and the above information, see William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana [University of North Carolina Press, 2014].)
Thanks to the Canadian government and the Vatican, which provided support for secret talks that reportedly lasted 18 months, Cuba and the US have finally come together. They were able to engineer a swap of prisoners and Cuba’s release of 53 people identified by the US as political prisoners, setting the stage for the reopening of the US embassy in Havana after over a half-century.
Obama said the agreement with Cuba reflects his “belief in the power of people-to-people engagement.” But it also provides opportunities to work together on common interests, such as drug trafficking, disaster response, and terrorism.” The administration also promises to review Cuba’s designated status as a “state sponsor of terrorism.” The agreement will have immediate benefits in terms of travel, commerce (banking and investments), and information flow. The major remaining roadblock is changes in the law governing the US embargo of Cuba; that will be up to Congress, which seems likely to give Obama a rough time.
In my post #54 that argued for responding to recent signs from North Korea that might reflect interest in engagement, I concluded: “Cuba is another opportunity for engagement, though there too anti-Castro forces in and outside Congress, and hardliners in Havana, will go to great lengths to undermine any prospective deal. Fidel Castro’s unusual article in Granma, the official newspaper, responding to a New York Times editorial that proposed normalizing relations with Cuba, suggests avenues of cooperation worth talking about (www.nytimes.com/2014/10/15/opinion/still-pondering-us-cuba-relations-fidel-castro-responds.html).”
Right on cue, Obama’s announcement drew anger and ridicule from the usual places. Sen. Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, called it “another concession to a tyranny,” one that, far from bringing respect for human rights to Cuba, would strengthen Castro’s hold on power. Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, that normalization “vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government.” And Jeb Bush weighed in with the original line that Obama was “rewarding dictators.” Of course Obama’s action does no such things. It is based on the entirely realistic as well as humanitarian assessment that permanent estrangement deepens enmity, isolates our two peoples and separates families, reduces opportunities for improvement in the quality of life in Cuba, inhibits the two-way flow of information, and prevents cooperation on common problems. Rubio and Menendez are still fighting the Cold War; but the Bay of Pigs is over, and they need to come up for fresh air.
Let’s hope that Obama’s engagement theme is on a roll, and that Iran and North Korea are next.