“It’s a courageous and historically necessary step. It’s possibly the most important step of his [Obama] presidency.” Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro
Not many people saw it coming yet it did. In fact, not many would think this day will ever come in the history of US-Cuba relations but it did and that in itself is a sign that nations in conflict could resolve issues through internal mechanisms and diplomatic tact. The last one to two days has witnessed a global reaction, albeit positive, to a long standing diplomatic and political impasse that seemed almost unending — US-Cuba relations. It is one issue that appeared as though was going to last forever, as both nations remained adamant and unwilling to kick-start a new process that would end its over 50 years of unbridled diplomatic stand-off.
How did we get to this point? It would be recalled that Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union saw it enmeshed in the Cold War geopolitical struggle between the US and Soviet Union. The consequence of this alliance led President Dwight Eisenhower to impose the very first trade embargo on Cuba in 1960 with diplomatic ties severed the following year. It would not be long before the botched 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban Missile Crisis sparked a long run of broken relations between the two countries. It was however thought that with the fall of the Berlin Wall, collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War, relations would be normalised as was done with Communist states like China and Vietnam but Cuba alongside Iran and North-Korea remained at the periphery of Washington’s foreign relations.
Not even the 1996 Helms-Burton law passed in 1996 to strengthen the existing trade embargo on Cuba and pressure the Castro government on regime change could help salvage an already worsening economic situation in Cuba. Rapprochements with Venezuela under Hugo Chavez and now Nicolas Maduro provided Cuba with a lifeline but this, according to analysts, is recently threatened by Venezuela’s dwindling economy and fear that the country’s socialist experiment may not last.
The Gordian knot was however untied when President Obama, after months of furtive negotiations with the Cuban government, announced on days back a number of sweeping changes that would kick-start economic, political and diplomatic relations with Cuba. The announcement formed part of Obama’s post-2008 election policy shifts where a “new start” in relations was promised between the two countries. Interestingly, to begin the implementation on the Cuban policy shift, Obama in 2011 relaxed some travel restrictions but the implementation remained stalled so long Alan P. Gross, a US government contractor arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison was still held. After Obama’s re-election, Cuba became a priority with negotiations led by Benjamin J. Rhodes and Ricardo Zúñiga saw nine meetings held with Cuba beginning in June 2013. The role played by both the Catholic Pontiff, Pope Francis in the negotiations remains highly remarkable. In fact, while the former was said to have provided the ground where most of the meetings were held, the latter helped to encourage the talks through written letters to both country’s president and even hosted a meeting at the Vatican in October to finalise the deal. Both presidents even went as far as talking for the first time in over 50 years on the phone for more than 45 minutes to formally seal the deal.
To appreciate the US-Cuba “new start”, Cuba released Mr. Gross (released separately on humanitarian grounds because he was, according to officials, not technically part of the release deal) and the US in return freed three imprisoned Cuban spies caught in 1998. They were swapped for Rolando Sarraf Trujillo, a Cuban imprisoned in Cuba for nearly 20 years.
Aside this, part of the deal will see the US easing restrictions on remittances, travel and banking. Cuba will follow up by allowing more internet access and releasing 53 Cubans identified as political prisoners by the US. Also, Cuba will be removed from the US terrorist list which will pave the way for a much deeper bilateral cooperation in the area of counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism among other related security issues. The most important highlight of this new policy is the idea to resume diplomatic relations and open embassies in Havana and Washington respectively.
The new US-Cuba relations is one of the remarkable foreign policy transformations taking place in this era. This is because millions of Cubans who have had to face humiliating sufferings for over 50 years between two hostile nations would finally have reprieve. For the fact Obama had observed that “These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked” is an indication that “It’s time for a new approach.” Also, the fact that this is happening at a time previous US presidents looked the other way is a proof that US foreign policy is non-belligerent and hegemonic.
The “new start” in US-Cuba relations is a right step in the right direction. Now is the time to kick-start a viable process that will end a 54 year political debacle that has divided families and wounded lives. This is not only victory for Latin America but also Cuba and the US altogether. This is victory for American foreign policy and international peace. Despite growing dissatisfaction with this policy shift among the Republican dominated Congress and a number of Latin American states, it is hoped common sense will prevail in handling this issue. All the same, this new start is a win-win situation for both countries, it’s a laudable initiative and a very important opportunity for the US to change the world’s perception about its foreign policy decisions. The cold war has ended and so should the sanctions and embargo on Cuba.
Raheem Oluwafunminiyi wrote via email@example.com