BY MICHAEL EDGHILL, Political Correspondent — Since January of 1961, the United States has not had diplomatic ties with Cuba. And as of December 17, 2014, the United States will seek to re-establish those ties and to move forward towards a new relationship with Havana.
This announcement from US President Barack Obama stunned many in the Americas who thought that a move such as this would be many years in the future, if at all.
After all, as a candidate in 2008 who promised “hope” and “change” for the United States, and who promised to re-examine US policy with Cuba, five full years in office brought no changes and very little hope for any modification of the US-Cuba status quo.
However, a negotiated deal – apparently facilitated at least in part by Pope Francis – brought Alan Gross home, returned three Cubans imprisoned in the US for spying, and released a number of people that the US had identified as political prisoners. Of course, how the deal was portrayed differed in Cuba and in the United States, but the substance is more important than the presentation at this point.
What the initial deal has done is that it enables Washington and Havana to move forward on developing a relationship that hasn’t existed in any other capacity but that of mutual animosity since Fidel Castro took power.
President Obama announced that US Secretary of State, John Kerry, will begin work on re-establishing the diplomatic relationship severed by the Eisenhower Administration. The US will also seek to reopen an Embassy in Havana, and will seriously evaluate why Cuba continues to be listed as a ‘State Sponsor of Terror’ by the US State Department.
In addition to these moves, allowances for remittances from the United States back to Cuba will be increased, and travel to Cuba under one of twelve authorized categories will be expanded. For a country seeking to modernize its economy and grow its private sector in order to reduce the economic burden on the state, more tourists, greater remittances, more trade, and more investment from the largest economy in the world and one of its closest neighbours promises to be of great benefit to not just the Cuban government, but to the Cuban people.
What the United States gets in return (aside from the moral integrity that comes with modifying a policy that seems to only hurt the most vulnerable and is completely inconsistent with the foreign policy practised vis-a-via other nations with terrible human rights records) is a more open line of communication with the Cuban people.
Infrastructure is set to be developed that will allow for the free flow of ideas by way of personal communication utilizing 21st Century technologies. If the problem for the United States is the prohibition against democratically elected government and the limitations on speech and association imposed upon all Cuban citizens, then the best thing that the US can hope for is to encourage the free exchange of ideas in whatever way it can, without actively forcing the Cuban government to concede to American demands.
The United States also gets improved relations with many of the other countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. For years, leaders throughout the Americas have chided the United States for its policies towards Cuba, and the recent Cuba-CARICOM Summit saw yet another declaration by Caribbean leaders demanding that the US reconsider this policy. Finally, the United States can go to other nations of the region and say “Now that we have cleared that hurdle, what else can we do together?”
It is at this point that the response of the regional community of nations becomes evermore important. Within the United States, the dialogue on the actions of President Obama will be fierce. Critics will be lining up, including Cuban-American Congressmen such as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, to categorize this move as catering to dictators. Attempts to draw correlations between America’s need to stand firm against Havana and its need to stand firm against Tehran and Pyongyang will become prevalent.
But Cuba is neither Iran nor North Korea. Even considering that correlation, the United States has engaged at various times with both Iran, as is the case currently, and with North Korea through the “Six-Party Talks”. For both of those nations, their regional neighbours are equally as concerned with these regimes as the United States is. Cuba is different because its regional neighbours embrace a change in Cuban policy. It is therefore incumbent, on both political and moral grounds, for the leaders of the nations of the Americas to stand up and laud the American government for its actions in changing the status quo in this relationship, and to proclaim the necessity for the Cuban government to change the status quo as it regards political dissidents in Cuba.
What needs to come from Cuba
While there are some nations in Latin America and the Caribbean where the repression of the voices of the political opposition is much softer – Venezuela and Nicaragua come to mind – and the call to welcome an open political dialogue will not be forthcoming, most of the nations of the region are vibrant democracies that embrace the free speech, free association, and free assembly that is denied to citizens of Cuba. As insistent as the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean have been regarding changes to US policy towards Cuba, it is now time to utilize that same voice to insist on changes to Cuban civil society.
These landmark actions are a very large and important step towards re-establishing the United States as the preferred national-partner of the Americas, and towards a free Cuba. But it will go no further if the Cuban government does not respond with actions of its own to allow for a more free civil society. Without that, there is no way that the American Congress will ever move to lift the embargo.
It is perhaps more important now than ever, for the governmental leaders of Latin America and the Caribbean, to engage Cuba in a dialogue about how to move forward from years of political repression towards a future of political freedom. Ultimately, as with the changes announced, it is what is best for the Cuban people.
Image: Gaston Browne, Prime Minister of Antigua & Barbuda and Chairman of CARICOM, and Raul Castro, President of Cuba, meet at the Fifth CARICOM-Cuba Summit. Credit: Ismael Francisco/MINREX Cuba