Cuba and the United States: Let’s Not Waste an Opportunity for Change

On Tuesday, April 21, Fidel Castro claimed that President Obama “without a doubt misinterpreted” the declarations made by his brother, and Cuban President, Raúl just before this past weekend’s Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. Speaking at an ALBA meeting on Thursday, April 17, Raúl said that his administration was willing to talk to Washington about “human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners — everything, everything, everything that they want to discuss.” President Obama responded by declaring his government was open to discussions, but only with the provision that Havana would establish its bona fides by releasing some political prisoners and ceasing to tax remittances being sent to the island by U.S.-based relatives.

Fidel’s latest interjection follows the almost scientific pattern of Cuban authorities of shooting themselves in the foot at precisely the moment that meaningful dialogue appears achievable with the U.S. For Fidel to spell out restrictions to discussions with the U.S. at this early stage is premature. What he seems to want, of course, is entirely proper. He wants Cuban sovereignty to be fully honored without preconditions. After all, he is not demanding that the crimes at Guantánamo be investigated, or, for that nature, that the full, horrific story of Abu Ghraib be told. However, history suggests that sitting down around the table and launching into a discussion of one issue after another often brings about fruitful results and needed reconciliations that cannot be achieved if the current barriers to even talking remain in place. The Cuban leadership needs to begin a dialogue with the Obama administration while the mood to do this exists on both sides.

On the other hand, this advice is equally applicable to the United States. Washington is no longer in a position to haughtily specify preconditions for a dialogue with Havana. The eight years of relative U.S. disengagement from Latin America which came about largely as a result of President Bush’s distraction in Afghanistan and Iraq, saw the region’s countries develop a range of autonomous ties and new habits as well as alliances and inter-American institutions, most of which lack U.S. membership. This is a huge development and could re-direct the entire nature of U.S.-Latin American relations. Consequently, Cuba now has alternative sources of finance and trade; it is no longer entirely reliant on the U.S. Indeed, Washington now stands all but alone in the western hemisphere in not maintaining full diplomatic ties with Havana.

Its own recent transgressions at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib dictate that the U.S. can hardly claim to hold the moral high ground in its dealings with Havana, and that it needs to employ greater modesty as well as prudence in the positions that it takes. Moreover, by making demands before sitting down with the Castro brothers, Washington is pursuing a hugely contradictory policy. Compare, for example, the approach Obama and all of his predecessors going back over the past five decades have taken towards Cuba, with President Bush’s willingness to sit down and normalize relations with a clearly corrupt and lawless Libyan regime in 2006, as well as its later eventually unqualified talks with North Korea and Iran.

The U.S.’ policy towards Cuba of maintaining sanctions in the hope of bringing about change before negotiations begin is a senseless one, reserved for Havana almost alone, that has proved to be an unmitigated failure.

President Obama’s gesture of resuming remittances and foreign travel is pitifully modest and is almost insulting to all parties. Why not grant freedom to travel for all Americans, not just Cuban-Americans, and guarantee that Cuban scholars be allowed to engage in professional activities, including reading academic papers at U.S. conferences, something that shamelessly was not allowed by the Bush administration nor today by the Obama White House? Obama needs to change his approach, but the likelihood of him doing so will be greatly diminished as long as the Castro brothers fail to follow up on Raúl’s promising overtures and agree to an open discussion with Washington, which would represent a stroke of tactical brilliance on their part.

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