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Obama pledges to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba

The surprise Christmas gift exchange of captives — and how that grew over decades

President Barack Obama called his December 17, 2014 phone conversation with Cuban counterpart President Raul Castro a “frank discussion.” By that time, Allan Gross and Rolando Sarraff Trujillo had been released from Cuban prisons and returned to the U.S., in exchange for three Cuban prisoners who were also freed and flown to Cuba.

Gross, a private contractor for USAID, had been imprisoned for espionage after allegedly trying to set up a Twitter-like network to stir up dissent. For five years he was jailed in a Cuban military hospital, losing 45 kilos, five teeth and much of his vision.

Trujillo, once a leader in Cuban intelligence, was held in a Cuban jail for 20 years after being caught supplying intelligence to the U.S. President Obama praised him for “provid[ing] America with the information that allowed us to arrest the network of Cuban agents” spying among the Cuban exile community around Miami.

The most stunning news, however, was Obama’s pledge to normalize U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba.

A long road leading to Dec. 17 headlines
Years of small steps by Cuban and U.S. intermediaries loosened the hard soil of enmity between the two nations. Gradually, travel restrictions for relatives in both nations were lightened and limits on cash remittances to Cuba increased. Recent interventions by other nations kept building the pressure to change. Canada provided a neutral place for secret discussions. Notably, even Pope Francis encouraged irenic relations. Altogether these created an impetus that official spokespersons of both nations could no longer brush off publicly.

In his official statement, Secretary of State John Kerry recalled how three presidents had worked to re-establish full relations with Vietnam less than 20 years after the U.S. ended its disastrous Southeast Asia campaign. Many people over 50 will remember Richard Nixon’s diplomatic and foreign policy coup, when he shocked the world with his daring and visionary visit to China. That trip resulted in today’s close, sometimes controversial, trade relationships between the two nations.

What took so long?
Both Vietnam and China are still communist-ruled, as is Cuba. Both are hardly heroes in promoting human rights. Why did this sea change take so long with Cuba? Three main reasons stand out.

First, Key West and Havana are separated by a mere 150 kilometres of ocean; no other communist-governed nation has ever been so close to the U.S. Cuba represented a psychological, if not actual threat within the U.S. sphere of influence in the Caribbean and the Americas.

Thus in April 1961 the CIA sponsored the Bay of Pigs invasion that failed spectacularly. In 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis took the U.S. and the Soviet Union perilously close to war. During the Castro brothers’ 54 years of authoritarian rule, the CIA tried often to assassinate Fidel Castro. (In espionage Cuba was no innocent bystander.) Over all those years the U.S. imposed a supposedly complete commercial ban on Cuba.

Second, waves of Cubans have fled their homeland over the decades. After Castro’s 1959 victory, thousands left for Miami. The 1980 Mariel Boatlift started with a few people requesting asylum in the Peruvian Embassy. Between April and October some 125,000 ended up in south Florida. Not a few were miscreants Castro released from Cuban prisons to rid his nation of troublemakers.

Since then thousands have dared the treacherous crossing on the Straits of Florida in all kinds of crafts, many not seaworthy. Cuban Navy apprehended many early in the voyage; others drowned en route. One windsurfing instructor in Varadero, though, sailed north one day, landing near Key West 17 hours later.

Why the endless flight north? Shortages of staples, low-paying jobs and the ubiquitous security apparatus that tried to force Cubans to spy on each other all made Cuba an unpleasant home. Latin America’s best medical care and universal education were not enough for many who feared for their families or simply yearned for freedom and good jobs. For its part, the U.S. welcomed Cubans to risk their lives with promises of immediate residency, all the while trying to keep Mexicans and Central Americans out.

Finally, as the Cuban exile community grew in south Florida, it became an articulate and influential centre of anti-Castro political action. Only in recent years with gradual loosening of restrictions has the heated opposition begun to cool. Still, the day President Obama announced intentions to normalize diplomatic relations, Florida Senator Marco Rubio declared he would oppose all such attempts.

Yet this process should have begun years ago. In his announcement about State Department initiatives soon to begin, John Kerry candidly admitted, “Not only has this policy [of the last 54 years] failed to advance America’s goals, it has actually isolated the United States instead of isolating Cuba.”

What has changed?
In short, a great deal has changed with this announcement. Even though some manic Republicans have accused President Obama of overstepping his authority, they only reveal their ignorance of U.S. government with its checks and balances. (Or are they lying to gullible constituents?)

Under that system the State Department, under the President, determines diplomatic relationships. Thus Kerry will send Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson to Cuba “to lead the U.S. Delegation to the next round of U.S.-Cuba Migration Talks.”

These talks will change immigration policy. The focus of this sea change will aim at eventual placement of full embassy staffs in Havana and Washington. Since 1960, the U.S. Cuban Interests Section, located steps from Havana’s famed Malecon Promenade, has been a target of billboard protests against “imperialismo yanqui.” Soon a more hospitable public diplomatic ecosystem will evolve, perhaps not as warm as the nations’ shared Gulf Stream, but at least imitating that God-given climate-changer.

Before that, however, the seventh Summit of the Americas on April 10-11 will include a Cuban delegation for the first time. Host Panama boldly invited Cuba after the 2012 meeting when member nations threatened future boycotts if Cuba were not invited. Cuba has confirmed that “the highest level of government will attend.” Whether Raul Castro will attend is uncertain. If Castro and Obama were to meet, that second personal encounter would follow the public handshake at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.

Soon Cuba’s gorgeous beaches and foreign-built hotels will be open to U.S. tourists. Long a favourite winter destination for Canadians and Europeans, Americans will join the ever-growing crowds. More hotels will change the skylines on Varadero, Holguin and other resorts.

New jobs in tourism will lure Cuban doctors, lab technicians, lawyers, engineers, teachers and more. As state employees, their official pay won’t be more than what they earn in all professions. The possibility of tips in hard currency as they clean rooms, tend bars, wait on tables or drive taxis and buses may cause a labour shortage in crucial parts of Cuban health, education and social infrastructure.

Oh yes, don’t forget the cigars. U.S. tourists will be permitted to return with $100 of tobacco, plus $300 of whatever they can find in markets or Duty Free.

What has not changed?
President Obama cannot lift the commercial embargo against Cuba except his promise to appeal to Congress to alter policies. Truly, though, that purported economic sanction has served more as convenient political charade in both nations than as the storied severe economic claimed by the U.S. and blamed by Cuba.

Constantly trumpeted by Cuban officials as “el bloqueo” (“blockade”), intransigent official U.S. policy has given the Cuban government five decades of excuses to fault the U.S. for its own grossly inefficient economy. Though Cuba’s astonishingly fertile land could produce all its food, huge expanses of land lie fallow, victims of centralized (mis-)allocation and stingy permits for private agriculture.

Meanwhile, under a policy called the “Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000,” the U.S. has exported foodstuffs for US$4.5 billion cash between 2001 and 2013. As well, in today’s global economy, many U.S. corporations are reputed to be deeply integrated with construction and exploration ventures fronted in Cuba by other nations’ entrepreneurs.

Regardless, any effort to lift the official embargo requires congressional approval. Given the intransigent Republican antipathy towards anything Obaman, that won’t happen until the Democrats control both houses of Congress or until senescent Republican leaders (young or old) realize that soon U.S. demographics will put visible minorities – whom they have spurned – in the angry, if not yet voting, majority.

So what?
Meanwhile, the U.S. Guantanamo Bay Naval Base – and prison – remain a constant reproach to Cuban pride. It continues to blot the U.S. reputation as a visible memory of U.S. adventurism in the Americans and Caribbean. Is December’s prisoner exchange a harbinger of a process that can eventually heal that open wound? Determined actions of candour, honesty and justice practiced among the community of nations of which the U.S. and Cuba are significant members might not be a hopeless dream.  

Christians in Cuba
The Jan. 26 issue of Christian Courier will feature a supplementary article on what these changes in diplomatic policy between the U.S. and Cuba might mean for Christians there.

  • Jim is a semi-retired Christian Reformed pastor and missionary who now works for Resonate Global Mission ten hours a week as "Member Care Coordinator," which means "Pastor to Missionaries," because where lots of our missionaries work it's inadvisable to use pastor or missionary publicly. That cool job puts a framework to his week, keeps him in contact with hundreds of even cooler servants of Jesus all over the world, compels him to travel to visit them once in a while, though he connects with them via email and Zoom most of the time. The rest of the time Jim reads books--lots of free ones that he "pays for" with reviews. He was acclaimed President of Christian Courier Board of Directors while on his way to that meeting from a long ophthalmologist appointment. As long as God gives his wife Rose and him health, they ride a tandem bike around Niagara and other places in the bikeable months, paddle canoes and kayaks, visit children and grandchildren in the distant places they live because their parents provided them poor role models for stability of residence.

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