Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"Todos somos americanos": A Thaw in US-Cuban Relations

Obama with the firm handshake to Castro.
Courtesy Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
In what could be one of Pres. Barack Obama's crowning moments in foreign policy, the White House announced today that relations with the government of Cuba would be reopened after 50 years of enmity. In a statement today at noon, Pres. Obama announced that the two countries would move towards the establishment of formal relations in the coming months, including the reopening of a US embassy in Havana, the exchange of visits by high-level officials, and a review by the State Department of Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terror. He justified the move by arguing that US policy towards Cuba, largely driven by isolation and embargo, has "failed to advance our interests" given that Communist Castro government remains in power, while the lives of everyday Cubans have been made extremely difficult by US policy.

The news came on the heels of the release of imprisoned US subcontractor Alan Gross, who has been held in Cuba for 5 years on charges of subversion and whose imprisonment was a major barrier to Pres. Obama's goal of improving US-Cuban relations. Gross was arrested in 2009 for distributing illegal satellite technology in an attempt to increase internet access among Cuba's small Jewish community. The 65-year-old was in poor health, having lost 100 pounds during his imprisonment and going on a hunger strike in April, and had reportedly suggested to his family that he would commit suicide if his imprisonment continued.

While the Cuban government released Gross on humanitarian grounds, it also released an American intelligence agent who has been in prison for over 20 years. Pres. Obama called the anonymous man "one of the most important intelligence agents that the United States ever had in Cuba," and his information reportedly led to the arrest of the "Cuban Five." It is thus fitting, if ironic and bittersweet, that his release came in exchange for the remaining three Cuban agents of the "Cuban Five," who have been in US prison since 1998.

Gross's imprisonment, however, was the largest obstacle for the Obama administration to overcome as it sought to improve relations, as the intelligence agent's detention was classified until today. Under the government of Raul Castro, Fidel Castro's younger brother, relations improved somewhat, including a handshake between Castro and Obama at Nelson Mandela's funeral in December 2013 that was a large symbolic step forward. On Tuesday, the two presidents had an hour-long phone call to discuss the establishment of diplomatic relations and prisoner exchange, the first direct presidential communication since 1961. 

In addition to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, Pres. Obama pledged to lift some travel, visa, banking, and communications restrictions that are under the executive branch's purview. He also called on Congress to work with him to repeal the laws enshrining the trade embargoes in the US legal code. Both Pres. Obama and Castro praised the efforts of Pope Francis, who had called on the countries to release their prisoners and reestablish relations over the past year. His encouragement to "see the world as it should be, rather than settling for the world as it is," coupled with Obama's longterm commitment to improve relations, helped pave the way for today's landmark announcement.

Of course, not everyone is celebrating the news of the thaw in relations. Members of Congress from both parties, including Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), railed against the move for failing to remove the Communist Party and Raul Castro from power. While the five decades of policy punishing the Cuban people for their repressive government have also failed to achieve any measurable results, these detractors hope that continuing and expanding the current policies will somehow force the Castro family from power. In the last 18 years alone, the US has spent $264 million on programs aimed at forcing regime change in Cuba, and while some of them have ended in PR nightmares for the US (including a program to create a "Cuban Twitter" and another to use Latin American citizens as pro-democracy agitators), they have done nothing to meaningfully undermine the Castro government. 

Some Cuban-Americans also expressed dismay at the news in Miami today, although the disappointment with the deal was largely "split along generational lines." Much of the older generation of Cuban-Americans holds out hope that the Castro-Communist government will fall from power due to continued isolation and embargo, while the younger one sees improved relations as a way to slowly open the country to democracy and greater human rights.

Still, the news that such an entrenched policy can change when it has been shown to be completely ineffective offers a glimmer of hope in other areas of US foreign affairs. US policies towards not only adversaries like Iran, but allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel, often don't achieve their desired results and in fact harm US interests abroad. If relations can be reestablished with Cuba, then perhaps they can also be established with Iran, and retooled with our erstwhile allies. Let's just hope that in the future, entrenched US policies don't take five decades to change when the primary country they are hurting is our own.

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