No sooner had US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro made their separate pronouncements about an initiative designed to lead to the normalization of relations between their two countries, than commentators began to speculate about the thicket of opposition that is likely to descend on the initiative, particularly from the powerful anti-Castro Cuban-American lobby in the United States, not least in the Congress.
That may well be so, though it would be erroneous to view last week’s pronouncements in Havana and Washington as though they were occurring in isolation from other developments that have more or less laid the foundation for the scaling of the last remaining major Cold War summit.
Last week’s disclosure had long been preceded by the advent of a healthy element of realism about Cuba-United States relations in the United States and in the West as a whole, so much so that the American blockade had come to be seen as pointless as a mechanism for breaking the will of the Cuban regime.
Accordingly, the best that can be said about the announcement is that it symbolizes America’s belated acknowledgement that its efforts over more than half a century to bring about regime change in Cuba by one means or another failed. The die is now well and truly cast and if the process of full-fledged normalization will take some time, what Barack Obama has done is to put down a marker that is significant both in the context of Cuba-US relations and in the context of a Cold War that continues to pass gradually into history.
Cuba-US relations had become so etched in the annals of international relations that the act of restoring diplomatic relations between the two countries alone guarantees President Obama’s place and the place of his presidency in history. This, after his foreign policy had seemed dangerously marooned on an island of decidedly humiliating failures in the Middle East, notably in the degeneration of Syria, Libya and Iraq into virtually failed-state status and the macabre rise of the group calling itself Islamic State whose push to create a modern-day caliphate employed grizzly attention-getting beheadings that compelled the West to sit up and take notice.
A Cuba-America rapprochement is good for the image of the United States, if for no other reason than the fact that even a cursory glance at US foreign policy over the years will reveal that Washington has installed, embraced and supported in a whole host of ways, regimes both within and without this hemisphere that made Fidel Castro’s Cuba resemble a nursery school, which, of course, exposes the hypocrisy of the Cuba blockade. Cuba may be no more than ninety miles from Florida, but Washington’s posture towards Havana always appeared to have been driven by ideological jingoism rather than any real security concern. There is a sense in which it is surprising that that disposition sustained itself for so many decades.
Meanwhile, for all the strident anti-Castro sentiments that continue to flourish among Cubans in Florida and elsewhere in the US, much has changed politically amongst Cuban Americans, and even this early there are signs that exiled Cubans who are frothing at the mouth over the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries are unlikely to have it all their own way.
On Saturday, the anticipated ‘thousands’ expected to show up at Miami’s Little Havana to protest the US President’s announcement turned out to be an estimated 250 people, a shockingly small number when account is taken of the thousands of Miami-based Cubans who have participated in public protests against the Havana regime in previous years. What is perhaps even more interesting is that the seeming cooling of the ardour for protest among US-based Cubans has been apparent despite the declaration by President Raúl Castro that Cuba’s socialist posture will not be abandoned as part of the normalization of relations with the US.
Havana will of course anticipate that influential Cuban-American exiles, notably state and local elected officials in Florida and staunch anti-Cuban Senators like Mario Rubio (R) of Florida and Ted Cruz (R) of Texas will do their best to undermine the process. Much of the available evidence, however, suggests that many younger Cuban-Americans, who are not prisoners of the syndrome of living in exile, have a different perspective on Cuba-US relations.
Examination of the Florida International University Annual (2014) Cuba poll indicates that 48 per cent of Miami-Dade County’s Cuban-Americans support keeping the embargo in place. That figure is down from 87 per cent when the poll was first taken in 1991. The same poll indicates that 68 per cent favour the restoration of diplomatic ties (90 per cent of younger Cubans support this policy) and 69 per cent support the removal of travel restrictions that impede Americans from travelling to Cuba. Again, younger Cuban-Americans – 89 per cent) endorse this policy.
If the restoration of diplomatic relations is no more than a first step in the direction of normalizing Cuba-America relations, the decision, (which would have been the subject of protracted and intense deliberations amongst the administration’s foremost foreign policy experts) points to (and this is an overwhelmingly important development) a quantum shift in Washington’s perception of what Cuba represents, one of the issues that shaped the era of the Cold War. At another end of the spectrum younger Cuban-Americans appear much more open to the kind of changes Obama has announced whilst what is described as “the old-guard, Cold War exile types” of Cubans would appear to be dwindling.
If this is not to say that President Obama’s move will not face tough anti-Castro opposition at home there are signs that even amongst Republicans there is support for normalizing relations with Havana. In recent days a fair handful of Republican Senators including Rand Paul (R) Kentucky, Jeff Flake (R) Arizona, and Jason Chaffetz (R) Utah have made public pronouncements about the desirability of moving towards a degree of normalization of relations with Cuba. That is not a posture which can be ignored, coming as it does from American politicians who have been staunch and consistently outspoken critics of the communist regime in Cuba.
One doubts that either Havana or Washington expects that the closeness that characterized Cuba-US relations up to the early 1950s will be restored at the drop of a proverbial hat, though incremental developments like the removal of travel restrictions and business and tourist ties are likely to improve relations in practical ways that go beyond the mere formality of the pronouncements made last week by Barack Obama and Raúl Castro. The portents for the normalization of relations between the two long-standing arch enemies may be far better than sceptics might imagine.