Cuba and the USA: the long thaw begins

By Raffique Shah
December 20, 2014

Raffique ShahI confess I was surprised when, last Wednesday, announcements from Washington and Havana confirmed that the United States and Cuba had agreed to restore diplomatic relations and work towards the normalisation of other relations, especially trade and travel between the two countries.

I did not think that President Barack Obama had the fortitude to dismantle a 50-plus-year anachronism that lingered as the last vestige of the Cold War that all but ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

It is not that Obama was steeped in the bitterness between the two neighbours or hoped that he would be the President that would break down the communist walls erected by Fidel Castro shortly after the triumph of the revolution in 1959. As I recall it, when he ran for office back in 2008, Obama did mention relations between the two countries as an item on his agenda.

But so too were Guantanamo prison that he vowed to dismantle, and bringing an end to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, all of which have hardly changed six years later. US-Cuba relations is a politically sensitive issue, a virtual determinant in national and presidential elections, especially in the state of Florida where most Cuban-Americans live.

While the older generation émigrés are a dying breed and many of the younger ones are more receptive to the restoration of relations, reality is the Cuba issue permeates the wider politics in America, with the extreme right in both the Republican and Democratic parties using it to gain advantage.

I sense, though, a change in thinking among Americans in general, and Hispanics in particular, hence Obama’s bold initiative towards Cuba and his stance on illegal immigrants.

Still, it’s early days in a process that could take years to mature. Havana clearly welcomes the rapprochement, but is not effusive about it. The official newspaper, Granma, focussed more on the release of the “Cuban 5” (prisoners held in America) as large numbers of young people celebrated their freedom.

And President Raul Castro, in his speech, said, “I have reiterated on many occasions our willingness to hold a respectful dialogue with the United States on the basis of sovereign equality in order to deal reciprocally with a wide variety of topics without detriment to the national independence and self-determination of our people.”

In other words, Cuba is ready to restore relations, but not to sacrifice its dignity and sovereignty. Put another way, America has healthy political and trade relations with China, but it dare not tell the ruling Communist party in that country to “open up the system”.

Caricom countries should feel a sense of vindication in this development since most of them, especially Trinidad and Tobago, have long called on the USA to lift its punitive trade embargo on Cuba. During the 1960s and 1970s, when many repressive US-sponsored regimes in Latin America waged proxy wars against Castro, quite literally, most Caribbean countries established and maintained diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba, defying Washington.

Cuba also enjoyed support from Canada and European countries that, besides trade, have contributed the largest chunk of the three million or so tourists that visit the country annually. In fact, at the United Nations general assembly annually, when votes are taken on the issue of lifting the US trade embargo, only Israel and a few insignificant countries vote with Washington.

As the long thaw begins, there will be problems. Obama and whoever succeeds him in 2016 will face strong opposition in the legislature in Washington.

And in Havana, there are Stalinist hardliners who will oppose anything to do with improving relations with the USA. Bitter words will flow from both countries that will seem to threaten the process.

But its inevitability is writ large on the wall that will crumble as history takes its course. America will find that it can coexist peacefully with a neighbouring country that operates under a different political system.

And the old guard in Havana will be compelled to usher in changes that will repose sovereignty of the nation in people, more so the younger, educated people, rather than the tired old Communist comrades.

As it stands on the threshold of a new era, Cuba owes an immense debt of gratitude to Fidel, Raul, Che and those brave men and women who, in the 1950s, fought and defeated the despicable, repressive Batista. Ironically, in the wake of their triumph, hostility from Washington drove the new regime into the arms of the Soviet Union, ushering in the dictatorship of the party.

Now that Russia, China and Vietnam have blazed new trails, experimenting with new political and economic models that, in large measure, bring prosperity to the people without giving way to disorder, mayhem and rampant crime, Cuba does not need to surrender its dignity or reinvent the wheel.

Trade and diplomatic relations with America, as they progress, if applied evenly among a people who are at the higher end of the discipline, education and health charts in the world, can yield untold benefits to Cuba and its Caribbean neighbours who stood steadfastly in solidarity with it through decades of very trying times.

3 thoughts on “Cuba and the USA: the long thaw begins”

  1. Your op-ed was cautiously written…
    I think it would be fair to say that there are many politicians and MPs in the T&T government, past and present, that quietly agreed with the US sanctions against Cuba. These are the followers that enjoy the money that is doled out by the US into their pockets. Now that the US is discussing building an Embassy in Cuba, these followers will side with the US and say Cuba is a wonderful place.
    The truth is that the US is very imperialistic and is now trying to secure a place in the Caribbean. Cuba needs investors and the US fits the bill.
    I think Castro was patient and perhaps he is hoping that once all sanctions are lifted, Cuba’s economy will pick up. We have to wait and see how this Congress votes on the sanctions.
    As an FYI, people in the US have always traveled to Cuba but with certain restrictions. Cuban Americans are also allowed to travel freely to Cuba and many travel with cash for family members.So the pending lifting of sanctions is not new news.

    The folks that complain about Cuba are mostly from the wealthy elites that defected to the US and Puerto Rico. These people have established themselves well into the US and many are heavily involved in US politics. Cuba lost most of its harden criminalsto the US during the Carter administration.

    I think Castro did his best to help the people of Cuba given his limited resources. After all, the education system in Cuba is stellar because they churn out more doctors than any country in the world, and they send their doctors by the thousands whenever there is a natural or catastrophic disaster any where in the world. In fact, when Hurricane Katrina practically wiped out Louisiana, Castro offered to send about 1500 doctors to the US but Bush said no. Meanwhile in the US, folks living in the state next to Louisiana set up barriers and fired shots at African American that were literally running for safety. state for safety.
    Today there are over date, over 30,000 doctors living abroad and working on behalf of Cuba,

    I think all this talk and media coverage about Cuba serves as a tool to distract the current issue at hand; the racial divide in the US. We will not forget Ferguson and the racial bias that is still alive.

    Bottom line: Cuba is another US investment that the US will try to exploit and drain. Hopefully the Castro regime will not become greedy once they see the sea of green.

  2. America had no support for the punishing embargo. All Caribbean, south and Central American nations supported an end to the embargo. The Cubans in Miami formed a powerful and influential Republican voting block and for years did not favor any normalization of relations with the Castro lead regime. Their hatred for Castro partly because many of them fled Cuba was the impetus for stalling and stopping any idea of a U.S./Cuba relationship.

    Once Obama started his second term it was just a matter of time before he ended the embargo. The reasons were quite clear, Europe and Canada along with some other nations were doing trade and building hotels while America watched. Besides 50 years had past, Fidel was now near the end and Raoul was slowly taking charge. Cubans preferred Fidel over Raoul because of his charismatic style, he spoke with a passion.

    Finance and Economy Minister Larry Howai did not leave State-owned First Citizens with a golden handshake of $10 million. He actually left with $11.625 million. The $11.625 million is higher from what the former Nyree Alfonso-chaired board had agreed to pay him, which would have worked out to $10 million

    Having visited Cuba it is truly a beautiful nation. The beaches are amongst the best, clean, clear water. The people are warm and friendly, crime is almost none existent. I felt very safe in Cuba, tourist are treated like gold because tourism kept their economy alive.

    The relationship between Cuba and the U.S. will take on its own dynamic. The Cubans have allowed greater religious freedom, I think when Pope John Paul visited much of what is happening today started back then. Cuba will emerge as a prosperous nation in a few years…. We can only wish them all the best!

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