New era begins between historic rivals

The US-Cuba rapprochement removes the last vestige of the Cold War in Latin America

President Barack Obama’s full speech.Photo: reuters_live | Video: Reuters-LIVE!
Marc Bassets

The Cold War in the Americas ended this week. A quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the United States and Cuba took the first step to normalize diplomatic relations and put an end to one of the great anomalies in American foreign policy: a system of sanctions dating back to 1961 that has failed to achieve its goal –  to end the Castro regime.

US President Barack Obama on Wednesday announced the beginning of talks with Cuba to re-establish full diplomatic relations between the two countries after a 53-year freeze and to open a new embassy in Havana. Obama has also ordered his administration to review Cuba’s presence on the list of state sponsors of terror and Washington will lift sanctions on travel and business.

The diplomatic reset came just hours after US authorities revealed that two American prisoners in Cuba had been exchanged for three Cubans who were serving prison sentences in the United States. The deal, which was agreed upon after Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro spoke on the phone, is the result of more than a year of negotiations in which Pope Francis played a significant role.

The deal is the result of more than a year of negotiations in which Pope Francis played a major role

President Obama, who promised to open dialogue with his country’s rivals when he entered the White House in 2009, justified his decision to reach out to Cuba by pointing out the failure of diplomatic sanctions and the economic embargo imposed on the island. “After all, these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach,” he said in a solemn speech.

The tension between the two nations has conditioned Cuba’s relationship with every American president since President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961). During that time, the Cuban diaspora has transformed southern Florida. The pressure to avoid making any concessions to the Castros, who sided with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, and Havana’s unwillingness to give up the argument that it was a victim of the embargo had always thwarted attempts at rapprochement.

The measures Obama announced on Wednesday – at the same time as Raúl Castro delivered his own televised address to Cubans – broke away from the United States’ traditional policy toward the island and elicited strong resistance in Congress, where some lawmakers have been reluctant to show any flexibility without a Cuban commitment to democracy. Republican leaders such as Senator Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, promised to do whatever was possible to, as he put it, “block this dangerous and desperate attempt by the president to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense.”

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Obama cannot lift the embargo himself given that the policy consists of a complicated network of restrictions codified in legislation. Removing certain economic sanctions requires congressional approval. The president does, however, have room to soothe tensions and he and Castro are taking advantage of that opportunity.

The conversation between Obama and Castro – the first official phone call between an American leader and a Cuban counterpart since Communist revolutionaries conquered Havana in 1959 – marked a final step after months of secret negotiations between White House envoys and the Cuban government. The two leaders talked for about an hour.

Early on Wednesday morning, the White House announced that Cuba would release Alan Gross, a United States Agency for International Development (Usaid) subcontractor imprisoned in Havana since 2009, as well as a mysterious Cuban national who worked as a US spy and had spent almost 20 years in prison on the island. In exchange, Washington said it would free three Cuban spies who have served more than a decade in prison in the United States. The White House had for several years called Gross’s imprisonment an obstacle to rapprochement.

Negotiations began in June 2013. Envoys met several times in Canada, but the key meeting took place last fall at the Vatican where Pope Francis served as mediator.

Obama and the pontiff spoke about the issue in March when the American president visited Rome. And in the summer Pope Francis sent letters to Obama and Castro, urging them to resolve the prisoner issue.

Obama’s speech on Wednesday is not the first step he has taken toward Havana. In his six years in office, the president loosened travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans wanting to visit the island or send remittances. At the same time, Castro adopted a few measures to open up the Cuban economy.

Alan Gross.
Alan Gross.AP

Since the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union, the situation in southern Florida and in the greater United States has changed. Miami is no longer the capital of intransigent Cuban exiles it was then, though they remain influential in Washington.

Many members of the newer generations of Americans of Cuban descent no longer take such a tough stance against the Castro regime. A recent survey found that 52 percent of Miami’s Cubans are against the embargo. Prominent figures from the community, such as sugar tycoon Alfy Fanjul, have called for a change in policy. At the same time, American big business is keen not want to miss out on opportunities in a future Cuba that might be open to capitalism.

Obama’s argument in favor of normalizing relations is not to abandon the fight for human rights and democracy on the island but, on the contrary, to advance them by opening the country up. Thus, Obama emphasized the need for initiatives that promote business – American financial institutions will now be able to open bank accounts on the island – and travel that, just as they were in 1960s Spain, may be the best way of exchanging ideas that lead to change.

Relaunching relations with Cuba is a matter of national interest for the Obama administration. The White House admits that the tension between the two nations is bogging down Washington’s dealings with the rest of Latin America. In April, Obama plans to attend the Summit of the Americas in Panama alongside President Castro.

If these measures lead to full diplomatic relations, they will effectively close the last open front of the Cold War in Latin America. But, this is not the only battle left. Negotiations with Iran continue. And there is still North Korea.

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