Sunday, July 29, 2012

"Castro said what?!": Cuba's President "Sets the Table" for Talks

As the Olympics get underway, the Syrian crisis slips closer and closer to civil war, and the U.S. is wracked by strong summer storms, a milestone in diplomacy almost passed by without notice this week. On July 26, Raul Castro, the brother of Fidel Castro and current leader of Cuba, announced that he was willing to begin talks with the United States.

Raul Castro and Che Guevara
The speech, given at ceremonies commemorating the Day of the National Rebellion, appeared to be impromptu and came on the heels of Vice President Jose Ramon Ventura’s central presentation. Castro’s speech proved to be the highlight of the event, which last year was widely mocked and criticized for its length and the boring nature of the speeches. This year’s event promised more of the same, until the President grabbed the microphone and delivered a diplomatic bombshell. Previously, no Cuban leader (that is, Fidel Castro) has opened the door for diplomatic relations between the two American states since the revolution of 1959. Raul Castro said that the “table was set for the Americans” and that Cuba would participate in any talks, at any time, as long as Cubans were treated as “equals.” He even quipped that future confrontations should take place in sports such as “baseball,” not in the political or ideological realms.

While still emphasizing Cubans’ desire for sovereignty, Castro’s words mark a clear departure from current policy towards the U.S. Yet they may also be masking ulterior motives. Recently, domestic dissent in Cuba has been bubbling to the surface of a country that tries to show the world a united front. One of the last bastions of Communism since the end of the Cold War, large swathes of Cuba’s people resent the restrictions on nearly every single one of their civil and political rights. Freedom of speech is curtailed, bloggers lament the falsehoods spread by the official press, and those who publicly oppose the regime often meet with threats, or even an untimely demise.

Such has been the case in the recent death of dissident Oswaldo Paya in a car accident. The official report of his death released this week described the crash as purely accidental, a claim supported by neither his widow nor his supporters. Cubans across the country mourned his passing as a loss of one of their luminaries, a man who would speak out for freedom while still capable of reaching across the aisle to his opponents.

This approach often led to charges he was too moderate to effect real change. If that is true, and the suspicious circumstances surrounding his death and that of the other young activist in the car, Harold Cepero Escalante, end up pointing to foul play, then even moderate activists are not safe from regime reprisals that may cost them their lives. Either way, Cuba has already lost one other opposition figurehead this year, founder of the “Ladies in White” Laura Pollan, and domestic frustration has been keenly felt.

Whether Castro’s offer is simply a smokescreen to distract from his dire domestic situation or a true attempt to rebuild bridges with the U.S., Thursday’s speech set the stage for a new era in U.S.-Cuban relations. It will remain to be seen if the two countries can ever truly repair their non-existent relationship, but some signs point to yes. On July 13, the first Miami-Havana cargo ship in 50 years left port carrying humanitarian supplies such as food and medicine as permitted by the U.S. trade embargo. It marks the beginning of a weekly service as well as another positive sign of improvements in relations between the two countries.

If Cuba works to improve civil rights, gives the U.S. security guarantees (such as turning down any plans by the Russians to build bases on the island), and expands political participation, it may just find a willing collaborator to the north. On the part of the U.S., an easing and eventual repeal of sanctions, the creation of trade, and similar security guarantees on its own part would be the least expected by the proud island nation in return for such sweeping reforms to its own policy.

No comments:

Post a Comment