By Doug Porter
A mutual release of prisoners today marks beginning of the end of the United States embargo against the island nation of Cuba. Cuba released jailed American Alan Gross along with an unnamed non-American intelligence ‘asset.’ The US released three Cubans accused of running a spy operation in the South Florida expatriate community.
The Associated Press reports the two governments are starting talks on normalizing full diplomatic relations; trade and banking ties are will be at the top of the agenda. Observers expect each country to attempt to open embassies in each other’s capitals during 2015.
While these actions are not part of any overall shift in US foreign policy, the repercussions throughout the hemisphere will be reminiscent of the establishment of normalized relations with China in the 1970’s. It’s a big deal. A really big deal.
From the New York Times:
In a deal negotiated during 18 months of secret talks hosted largely by Canada and encouraged by Pope Francis, who hosted a final meeting at the Vatican, President Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba agreed in a telephone call to put aside decades of hostility to find a new relationship between the United States and the island nation just 90 minutes off the American coast….
….the United States will ease restrictions on remittances, travel and banking relations, and Cuba will release 53 Cuban prisoners identified as political prisoners by the United States government. Although the decades-old American embargo on Cuba will remain in place for now, the administration signaled that it would welcome a move by Congress to ease or lift it should lawmakers choose to.
For a little late 20th century historical perspective, I’ll turn to a source not normally seen in this space, The American Conservative:
The embargo was originally conceived in a 1960 State Department memorandum as a way to deny “money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.” It failed. So did an amphibious invasion by exiles in 1961 at the Bay of Pigs; President Kennedy’s Operation Mongoose, a campaign of propaganda and sabotage; and the CIA’s attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro.
With Cuba in economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union, we tightened the embargo in 1992 and 1996 in the hope that new, targeted pressures would push Havana over the brink. A decade later, based on the same hope, President George W. Bush tried more systematically than any President to stem flows of hard currency to Cuba, even strictly limiting family visits and remittances. He named a “Cuba Transition Coordinator” in the State Department for a transition that his policies failed to produce, and the post has since been abolished.
President Obama has continued most of the Bush policies, including amateur-hour covert operations run by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). One resulted in the 2009 jailing of U.S. contractor Alan Gross as he set up satellite Internet systems with WiFi hotspots in Havana and beyond. Another established a short-lived Twitter-like service for Cuban cell phone users, using polls to collect data on their political views for later use in political mobilization.
Here’s the longer view of US-Cuba relations as expressed by Salim Lamrani, La Sorbonne University, Paris:
As far back as October 20, 1805, Thomas Jefferson evoked the extreme importance of the Caribbean archipelago under Spanish rule at the time stating: “The control which, with Florida Point, this island would give us over the Gulf of Mexico, and the countries and isthmus bordering on it, as well as all those whose waters flow into it, would fill up the measure of our political well-being.” However, Spain could rule the island until “our people is sufficiently advanced to take those territories from the Spanish, bit by bit” .
In 1809, in a letter to James Madison, he wrote: “I candidly confess that I have ever looked on Cuba as the most interesting addition which could ever be made to our system of States.”
US intervention in Cuba over the next 150 years became a routine affair. Prior to the Civil War, Southern interests attempted to have the U.S. purchase Cuba and make it new slave territory. The Cubans were excluded from negotiations about the future of their country following the US invasion of 1898, even though their army had done much of the work in defeating the Spanish.
Cubans who’d looked northward and were inspired were crushed with passage of the Platt Amendment, which gave the island “self-governing” colonial status. The US retained the right to intervene militarily as needed. And voting rights were limited to to literate, adult, male Cubans with property worth $250 or more, largely resulting in exclusion of the Afro-Cuban population from participation.
The United States military intervened Cuba in 1912, 1917 and 1933. Before the 1959 revolution, US companies owned 80% of services, mines, ranches and oil refineries, 40% of the sugar industry and 50% of railways. So it’s little wonder that the 1959 revolution didn’t look northward for inspiration.
Ending The Embargo
The United Nations General Assembly has passed a resolution every year for the past 22 years criticizing the ongoing impact of the embargo, with Israel being the only country that routinely joins the US in voting against the resolution. Over 190 nations have ignored the embargo in recent years, making it effectively nothing more than a relic of the Cold War.
Moisés Naím, Distinguished Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, nailed the ridiculousness of the situation with a 2009 column in Newsweek, saying:
The embargo is the perfect example used by anti-Americans everywhere to expose the hypocrisy of a superpower that punishes a small island while cozying to dictators elsewhere.
It will be interesting to watch Congress stumble through the process of ending the embargo. A small group of rabidly anti-communist exiles has effectively blocked normalization of relations for decades now. The question will now be whether the economic possibilities of opening Cuba to trade will trump ideological rigidity.
GOP presidential wannabe Senator Marco Rubio was quoted by the Associated Press:
“This is going to do absolutely nothing to further human rights and democracy in Cuba. But it potentially goes a long way in providing the economic lift that the Castro regime needs to become permanent fixtures in Cuba for generations to come.”
The Cuba Headlines website, based out of Havana, commented:
The humanitarian release is just the beginning of a promised new relationship with Cuba. The White House is indicating the beginning of new talks on everything from travel restrictions to eventual lifting of the Cuban embargo in place since John F. Kennedy was President.
In an interview last week with Jorge Ramos for Fusion — a sister network to ABC News — President Obama said: “We’ve been in conversations about how we can get Alan Gross home for quite some time.”
Hip Hop Diplomacy Gaffe
The first steps toward normalization of relations between the countries comes on the heels of an embarrassing disclosure last week about US efforts to infiltrate the island nation’s burgeoning Hip Hop scene.
From Huffington Post:
On at least six occasions, Cuban authorities detained or interrogated people involved in the program; they also confiscated computer hardware that in some cases contained information that jeopardized Cubans who likely had no idea they were caught up in a clandestine U.S. operation. Still, contractors working for the U.S. Agency for International Development kept putting themselves and their targets at risk, the AP investigation found.
Hip-hop artists who USAID contractors tried to promote either left the country or stopped performing after pressure from the Cuban government, and one of the island’s most popular independent music festivals was taken over after officials linked it to USAID.
The Caribbean Economy
Nowhere will the normalization of relations with Cuba be felt more than among the other Caribbean islands. The natural resources of Cuba and its large amount of arable land have the potential to make it an economic powerhouse in the region.
The question of where Cuba’s economy goes in the coming decades looms large. Its proximity to mainland North America could serve to disrupt economies on smaller islands that are almost entirely dependent on tourism.
And then there’s the myth of Cuba. Despite the sanctions, its hit or miss experiments with the economy and the economic collapse of its Soviet sponsors there is much to admire about the country. It’s health care system and literacy rate (100%) are top notch. According to the World Health Organization, Cuba provides a doctor for every 170 residents, and has the second highest doctor-to-patient ratio in the world after Italy.
Cubans are a proud people who’ve done remarkably well in the face of adversity. With many US corporate interests poised to involve themselves on the island, I can only hope they’ll stand up to this latest challenge, keeping their amazing culture alive in the face of an iPod invasion.
The White House Statement
Here are the opening paragraphs of the White House announcement:
Today, the United States is taking historic steps to chart a new course in our relations with Cuba and to further engage and empower the Cuban people. We are separated by 90 miles of water, but brought together through the relationships between the two million Cubans and Americans of Cuban descent that live in the United States, and the 11 million Cubans who share similar hopes for a more positive future for Cuba.
It is clear that decades of U.S. isolation of Cuba have failed to accomplish our enduring objective of promoting the emergence of a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba. At times, longstanding U.S. policy towards Cuba has isolated the United States from regional and international partners, constrained our ability to influence outcomes throughout the Western Hemisphere, and impaired the use of the full range of tools available to the United States to promote positive change in Cuba. Though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, it has had little effect – today, as in 1961, Cuba is governed by the Castros and the Communist party.
We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse. We know from hard-learned experience that it is better to encourage and support reform than to impose policies that will render a country a failed state. With our actions today, we are calling on Cuba to unleash the potential of 11 million Cubans by ending unnecessary restrictions on their political, social, and economic activities. In that spirit, we should not allow U.S. sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens we seek to help.
Today, we are renewing our leadership in the Americas. We are choosing to cut loose the anchor of the past, because it is entirely necessary to reach a better future – for our national interests, for the American people, and for the Cuban people.
On This Day: 1777 – France recognized American independence. 1955 – Carl Perkins wrote “Blue Suede Shoes.” Less than 48 hours later, he recorded it in Memphis. 1969 – The Air Force closed its Project “Blue Book” by concluding that there was no evidence of extraterrestrial spaceships behind thousands of UFO sightings.
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