By Raffique Shah
December 20, 2014
I 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.