President Barack Obama created a history of sort on March 21-22 by restoring the diplomatic relations between the US and Cuba, frozen for the last 54 years. He has displayed the bold and soft power of American diplomacy which could hardly be possible for any serving President of the sole superpower of the world at least when Castros who had always posed a challenge for the capitalist world, have been at the helm of affairs in Cuba. Obama had announced to normalise the diplomatic relations with the Castro regime on December 17, 2014 after two years of starting his second stint in the White House.
Way back in 2008, Obama spoke about American approach to Castro regime, “I will maintain the embargo. It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with clear choice. If you take significant steps towards democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalising relations.” This shows that he had a plan to soften his approach toward Cuba, which to him would go beyond isolation and also might bring an end to the Communist regime of the country. After assuming office for the first time, he relaxed US’ decade-old restrictions on family travel and cash remittances to Cuba and strongly insisted that further changes depended on the conduct of the regime. Then he gave the explanation for his new approach towards Castr: “We have made these modifications that send a signal that we’re prepared to show flexibility. On the other hand, we have to see a signal back from the Cuban Government that it is following through on releasing political prisoners, on providing people their basic human rights, in order for us to be fully engaged with them.”
Despite Castro’s refusal to moderate its stand, Obama agreed to normalise ties, review Cuba’s designation as a State sponsor of terrorism and repatriate three convicted Cuban spies, including Gerardo Hernandez who was, in fact, given life sentences for conspiring to murder American citizens. However the Cuban Government reciprocated by releasing US aid worker Alan Gross, who was serving a 15-year sentence for providing US aid to the Jewish community of Cuba; 53 Cuban political prisoners and a Cuban supposed to be a US intelligence agent.
From the time Christopher Columbus claimed it for Spain in 1492, Cuba became the Caribbean’s prize jewel, fought over by the powerful nations of the world. Consequently, the external forces of domination and internal ones of liberation slowly marshalled a slew of violent activism in their long struggle for holding sway over Cuba’s destiny. And America’s long and arduous journey to control and even to purchase the island from the Spanish colonisers continued irrespective of the fact whether a Democrat or Republican occupied White House in the past.
The critics say that the normalisation of political ties with Cuba indeed directly offers political recognition to an age-old dictatorial regime once hated most by the US. It seems to be the new normal between the US and Cuba in a digitally defined globalised world, but the current atmosphere brings a unique challenge for American economic community to do business in that country. While American companies have now more opportunities than ever, the roadblocks have not gone away so far. Particularly, the current US embargo on Cuba has not been lifted formally and Obama is having a tough time while grappling with the unfriendly Republican-dominated Congress. So, it’s really uncertain when and how this embargo will be lifted before he leaves office on January 20, 2017. There are also questions over how the two neighbours will deal with claims by US families and businessmen about the seizure of properties worth $1.9 billion (today it stands at $7 billion) by Cuba in 1960s.
Washington is highly concerned about how Havana will go about opening its State – owned economy to hordes of multinational corporations for huge investments and introducing fair rules of business for a sustainable and risk – free atmosphere. It is felt in conservative circles in the US that the Cuban Government is not responding to the Obama initiative with a sense of urgency. John S. Kavulich, president of the US-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, noted that the Cuban Government has made it clear that before a completely normalised relationship can exist, the issue of “between $100 billion and $1 trillion” in reparations for seized property need to be settled and Guantanamo Bay must be returned to Cuba.
If 2015 could be considered a watershed year in US-Cuba relationship with the resumption of talks, ties and opening of their respective missions, then the year 2016 would probably witness the testing time for building on the positives and reuniting two hardcore adversarial political systems in global affairs with a change of guard in White House and an ageing Communist leadership in Havana. It must be noted that the US’ relationship with Cuba is not all something Democrats vs. Republicans in the Congress. There is remarkable support from both sides of the aisle for strengthening a sustainable relationship with the Communist neighbour, though there has been continued opposition from the Republicans saying Obama has given the Castros a free pass. Today, the reality is that the executive branch of the US Government does not have the power to remove the embargo in full, which after the passage of the Helms-Burton Act in 1996 prohibited recognition of a government that included the Castro regime and endorsed the implementation of a democratically elected government there. Therefore change that may come from the US Government is limited, but an atmosphere of hope and reconciliation has already begun. Any new legislation will only be enacted after the new President assumes office early next year. On both sides of the straits, there is a lot more aspirational thinking going on without considering the real issues. However, the Cubans are updating their systems and Raul Castro has already started reforming, but it does not necessarily imply that the Communist island is embracing Capitalism soon.
It is to be noted carefully that the critics of the rapprochement want significant improvements on Cuba’s human rights record, wherein there is hardly any transparency and the long-held Castro regime shows no accountability to the international community in this regard. While delivering his State of the Union Address on January 20, 2015, Obama declared in the Congress, “Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere, removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba, stands up for democratic values, and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.” But it must be kept in mind by both the democrats and Republicans in the US that mere engagement at diplomatic level and opening of economic relationship would certainly not be enough to root out the germ of Communism in the post-Castro Cuba unless there is a gradual shift toward the liberal democratic values both in body and spirit of the people on the streets. There must be a genuine feeling and uprising in the midst of the commoners that Cuba is not the personal fiefdom of Castro brothers and hence “they” are not indispensable anymore. Cuba belongs to every Cuban wherein political rights and freedoms must be equally available to all its citizens. The uncontested authority and impunity of ageing Communists led by Raul Castro must hand over powers to new leadership and Cuba’s constitution must bring true political reform to introduce multi-party democracy at the earliest.
Both sides of the Strait of Florida, the Washington and Havana, must see a “new era” coming in marshalling through the murky waters. There is ample work left to be done at the moment to put back two entirely different economic and political systems on a normal mode. The biggest challenge for both US and Cuba is that who will be the next incumbent in the White House and whether he or she would like to take forward the history-setting move which obviously forms a remarkable part of Obama legacy. At the home turf, it is a serious responsibility of Obama to convince the critics that his visit to Cuba, the first by a US President (last being Calvin Coolidge’s in January, 1928) in 87 years, has more to do with the solidarity with the ordinary Cubans and not to extend legitimacy to Castro dictatorship, without letting down American interests and values at the core of the country’s long standing rich democratic edifice.
“I believe that there are two different concepts of freedom. You (the United States) believe that freedom can exist with a class system, and we believe in a system where everyone is equal, where… there is no pyramid, no millionaires, no multimillionaires, no jobless… We believe that without equality, there is no freedom because you do have to speak about the freedom of the beggar, the prostitute, the exploited, the discriminated, the illiterate…” Fidel Castro once spoke in 1975, but the saddest part is that in his longest serving political career, he had never ever allowed “equality of opportunity in politics” by relentlessly holding onto the post, till he has transferred power to his brother Raul in 2008. It is natural for all the Communist leaders, starting from Lenin, Stalin, Mao, to Castro, to never look like an exception in this regard.
Team Obama must ensure a pragmatic strategy to fight all the odds to engage the Castros and the new regime of Miguel Dias-Canel in the days to come. The new roadmap in America’s diplomatic corridors should clear legislative logjams for building a vibrant relationship with Cuba even if a Republican President occupies the White House not just to salvage Obama’s historic “Cuba Initiative”, and also to assuage the Latin American leaders of all hues that America of the 21st century prefers its business not to be any more wars and neo-liberal market gimmicks. Today, Latin America stands in US diplomatic lexicon for meaningful engagement in business, friendship and familial ties. Come on, the American leadership in the post-Obama Washington must show the right spirit to prove it.
Courtesy: The Pioneer