The United States and Cuba: Toward Normalization, Finally
A victory for diplomacy in time for the holidays.
Yesterday’s announcement from President Barack Obama that the United States and Cuba would reestablish diplomatic relations is a startling but welcome breath of fresh air in the stalest of international stalemates.
Right after the media reported the mutual release of prisoners, including U.S. subcontractor Alan Gross and the three remaining members of the “Cuban Five,” Obama announced that mutual embassies would soon spring up.
The President added that the United States would also loosen restrictions on travel, remittances, banking and trade. Travelers can now bring back Cuban cigars!
Cuban Americans will now be able to see their families more often and send them greater remittances — from $500 to $2,000 every three months. All sorts of U.S. citizens, from students to religious groups, will be able to travel more easily.
Rational grown-ups and mutual interests
This is a victory for diplomacy — yes, even secret diplomacy. With the Canadian government hosting, U.S. and Cuban negotiators met behind closed doors for 18 months.
If the media had reported on the negotiations, they probably would have been scuttled by Republican accusations. Instead, rational grown-ups identified mutual interests of their nation and moved ahead with bold decisions.
Such progress will probably beget more progress — on immigration, the environment, narcotics and human trafficking. The absence of Cuba promised to derail the next Summit of the Americas and further alienate Washington from every government in the hemisphere. Crisis averted.
Normalization, to be sure, is not complete. Cuba is still not a member of the Organization of American States and joining might take more democratization than Cuban leader Raúl Castro is willing to tolerate.
More important is the remaining embargo. The outlawing of most trade with Cuba is the longest embargo ever, in place since 1962.
In the 1990s a Congress and presidents pressured by the Cuban-American lobby codified it into law. So it can only be fully rescinded by another act of Congress.
Republican hang-ups on Cuba
Congress has generally been slow to act on anything, especially on Cuba. And Republicans are, as usual, the greatest impediment to progress.
They have long outdone Democrats in being “tough” on Cuba with their rhetoric in order to win votes in Florida, a swing state. This time will be no different.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio and former Florida governor Jeb Bush will probably both run for president in 2016. They will try to use U.S-Cuba normalization to paint the Democrats as — God help us — soft on communism.
But Obama should not let the inmates run the asylum. The stakes are too high and too clear. The limited loosening of cash-and-carry trade in food and medicine in the 2000s produced hundreds of millions in sales for the United States yearly.
Cubans are still suffering from a suffocating political and economic system, but they are arguably doing better than since the end of the Cold War.
The Cubans need normalization more than the United States does. There is every reason to think that they will pursue more of it, if the U.S. government remains respectful and stays out of Cuban politics.