On restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba: why Obama did it — and why now.

REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa
A woman riding her bicycle on a road in Artemisa province, near Havana on July 25.

What took so long?

President Obama’s announcement Wednesday that the U.S. would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba came with a statement of the blindingly obvious: Policies established during the depths of the Cold War had failed. They ossified, largely for domestic political reasons, and stayed in place until the right set of circumstances and cast of characters allowed for a dramatic change.

In this case, those characters included a U.S. president who says he wants to avoid doing “stupid stuff,” a Castro whose first name isn’t Fidel, and the first pope from Latin America – who encouraged the two sides. Canada gets an assist for hosting negotiations and keeping it quiet.

Obama has been trying for a similar breakthrough with Iran, but the stakes are higher and the process is vastly more complicated. Iran is a major player in an incredibly volatile region, and it has a nuclear program of debatable purpose.

And Cuba? Well, the missile crisis was 52 years ago. The world has changed. Cuba has changed, too, but not as much.

This is not to say that the United States and Cuba are going to be buddies. Obama is using executive authority — the best friend of a second-term president facing a hostile Congress — to establish diplomatic relations with Havana for the first time since 1961. But the main irritant, a U.S. embargo, will remain in place. Only Congress can lift that.

Polls indicate the majority of Americans now favor improved relations with Cuba. But the embargo still has a constituency within the anti-Castro Cuban exile community, and in Congress. Senators Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, and Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, were quick to criticize Obama’s move.

The United States, presumably, will use its new diplomats in Havana to press Raul Castro to open up his political system and economy. That’s standard operating procedure in countries (there are many of them) where the United States has issues with human rights abuses, cooked elections, corruption and other ills. The absence of diplomatic representation is very much the exception.

We should watch to see how much things change in Cuba, and how fast. U.S. policies have always provided Cuban authorities with a convenient explanation for the country’s economic backwardness. Change that, and they’ll have to produce.

Some things were bound to change, anyway.

Raul Castro, who took over from his older brother in 2006, is himself an octogenarian. When he was elected to a new five-year term last year, he said it would be his last. So Cuba is on the cusp of a major transition. Cuba’s new president in 2018 will be the first in 59 years who won’t be a Castro.

During his time in office, the younger Castro has taken steps to liberalize the economy. But the moves have been gradual, and a lot of unresolved issues remain. 

And Raul Castro has been clear that the point of economic change is not to lead to political change. But if the system can’t adapt, it will have to change.

Up to this point, Obama has also been moving cautiously, too, taking smaller steps to ease the impact of U.S. policy. The package of moves announced Wednesday includes reviewing whether Cuba should remain on the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism, a list that — besides Cuba — includes only Iran, Syria and Sudan. The U.S. will loosen some export controls and make it easier to travel to Cuba. And the ban on Cuban cigars will end.

It’s fair to wonder what Fidel thinks of all this. He has largely stayed out of the public eye since handing power to his brother. But he still writes an occasional column, “Reflections of Fidel,” published by Cuban media, including one in which he called Obama stupid.

Fidel usually takes his time. But then, the process that started Wednesday will take some time, too.

Mark Porubcansky has been a foreign correspondent and editor for 30 years, serving until recently as foreign editor of the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Scandia.

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Comments (25)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/18/2014 - 09:30 am.

    It’s a battle of our parents and grandparents. Why should we carry their burdens forward?

    Why should we not have relations with Cuba when we go back and forth to Russia and China in every possible way on every day of the week?

    Cuba is much more of a toothless lion of “communism” than Russia (Ukraine !?!?) and China (Taiwan/Spratley Islands !?!). They have active anti-US programs that are far more threatening than Cuba.

    Besides, it undercuts Marco Rubio in a big way– I would bet that even a large portion of his older Cuban (ant-Castro, anti-normalization) constituency will be travelling back to the homeland for a visit in the next few years before they die. The younger ones will even go more often and longer. Just let him try to campaign on rolling back the sanctions…

  2. Submitted by Doug Gray on 12/18/2014 - 10:24 am.

    The U.S. already has diplomats in Cuba and vice versa, formally as Interests Sections of the Swiss Embassies in each country. So for that aspect of relations, the new opening is mostly symbolic.

  3. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 12/18/2014 - 11:57 am.

    Travel

    A buddy and I are already talking about making a trip to Cuba in the next couple of years. We want to see the place before all the investors swoop in and change the landscape with exclusive resorts like Cancun. It would be cool to see the place as it is now, plus find a guide and do tours of the USS Maine site, Bay of Pigs, and San Juan Hill. It’s time to take in a little history before it gets buried underneath a Club Med with a bronze plaque by the door that says “on this site…”

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 12/18/2014 - 12:49 pm.

      I also really want to travel to Cuba. It looks to be a beautiful place… Havana has been on the bucket-list for a long time now. I have high hopes that the Cubans will not let the historic aspects of their country fall prey to rampant capitalism, as they still have a fairly tightly-controlled society.

      The USS Maine, however, is in about 3000 feet of water. It was rediscovered in 2003, I think, even though the original sinking was in Havana Harbor.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/23/2014 - 10:27 pm.

      I’ve actually been to Cuba

      I went with a church group in 2011. It’s a beautiful island with friendly people and great music and art, and it seems less repressive than China did in 1990.

      It was a fascinating experience to be in a country completely cut off from American commercial culture. My cell phone didn’t work, nor was there any easily accessible Internet. The convent (yes, a working convent) that we stayed in had satellite TV, but I didn’t have time to watch it.

      The island is neither as wonderful as its fans think nor as terrible as most right-wingers seem to think. It’s definitely no North Korea.

      For those who think that Castro overthrew a democratic government, I suggest reading the book “Havana Nocturne” by T.J. English, which details the way in which the Batista government (which came to power in a coup) was corrupted at all levels by American mobsters, who planned to turn the island into Vice Central for the Americas.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/18/2014 - 09:44 pm.

    Communist regimes

    have no shortage of defenders in these precincts.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/19/2014 - 08:38 am.

      Communist regime defenders?

      Or people who recognize that we have much more interaction with far more dangerous regimes like China and Russia. I can easily book a tour of either of those countries and I can go on US government and state government sponsored trade missions to both of those countries.

      Now tell me again how much worse Cuba is than either of those countries.

    • Submitted by Dan Hintz on 12/20/2014 - 12:42 am.

      Irony

      The irony is that the embargo is what has kept the Castros in power all these years. It is embargo supporters that are the true defenders of this communist regime. Fortunately, the president is smart enough to know that the policies of the past 50+ years have failed and the way to free Cuba is to open things up.

  5. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/19/2014 - 07:53 am.

    “…they still have a fairly tightly-controlled society”

    Really?

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 12/22/2014 - 10:58 am.

      Yes, I think it would be somewhat lamentable to see McDonald’s’, Subways, and Urban Outfitters on the Malecón.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/19/2014 - 07:59 am.

    I prefer to believe celebratory pro-Cuban leftists in America are unaware of the fact that just a year ago, a North Korean ship was seized after it was found to be loaded with surface to air missile systems from Cuba, with love.

    The alternative conclusion is pretty depressing.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/19/2014 - 08:49 am.

      Ah, yes, the illicit trade in Soviet-era (what was that–at least 3 decades ago?) planes and weapons systems between the two axis-of-evil countries.

      If you want to see the weapons found on the ship, go to:

      http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/picturegalleries/worldnews/10184318/On-board-the-North-Korean-ship-in-Panama-carrying-weapons-from-Cuba.html

      In containers crushed-in by the weight of the sugar bags.

      ‘Tis frightening, indeed.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 12/19/2014 - 08:51 am.

      Actually, the weapons were developed in 1957 and frequently used during the Vietnam War.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 12/22/2014 - 10:55 am.

      You may prefer it, but it isn’t true. I remember it well, and I also remember thinking that a 50 year-old missile system was probably more dangerous to whomever was firing it, as opposed to whomever it was being fired AT. I, for one, do not fear the Cuban Armed Forces.

      Besides, the North Koreans are really, really good at building functional weapons platforms.

      Surely, any regime that secretly deals in weapons must be circumspect, right? Now tell me about Ollie North.

      Oh, we also supported the dictator, Fulgencio Batista, while he was executing thousands of Cubans and violently curbing freedoms, which is what led to the Cuban Revolution in the first place. We were OK with Batista, as he was virulently anti-communist.

  7. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/23/2014 - 12:11 pm.

    Wrong timing

    The embargo on Cuba should have been lifted for two reasons. First, it doesn’t do what it is supposed to do (undermine Cuban government) considering that the rest of the world freely trades with Cuba. And second, it is inconsistent with the rest of the foreign policy that includes relationship with China and Venezuela which are not any better.

    Of course, this move will give a huge propaganda victory to the Castro brothers (that is what happens in countries like Cuba – for those who don’t know) but their regime was not going to fall anyway. Obviously this American action will not make any difference in opening Cuba or making it freer either (see reason number one above – all European countries have had their embassies there forever and it didn’t help any) so all those using that as a justification for the president’s actions and hoping for that can stop dreaming.

    The main problem is that this president manages to do things incorrectly even when he is doing the right things (and I am not even talking about this most open administration in history doing everything in secret, even from the Congress). Cuba was in a very difficult position because its main lifeline (in the way of Venezuelan support) was about to expire meaning that Cuba needed this deal much more than America. On the other hand, Venezuela was in a bad situation too because it had to decide whether to cut off Cuba or its own poor citizens.

    Now president Obama solved problems for both of those bad countries. Not only did he solve their problems, he also did not get anything in return for America. We gave them three spies and got just two of our people back and there was no promise to return American fugitives that now live on Cuba. So the timing and agreement is terrible… but why does it matter for those who like Obama and Cuba.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/23/2014 - 02:16 pm.

      Once Again, I Find Myself Asking “What the ****?!”

      How, exactly, is extending diplomatic recognition to Cuba–something that merely involves exchanging Ambassadors, and allowing official contacts between the two governments–solving problems for Cuba or Venezuela? As has been pointed out, the economic embargo remains in place and will take action by Congress before it can be lifted. Most of the rest of the world has already faced reality and extended diplomatic recognition to Cuba, so it’s not as though the Castro regime is suddenly legitimized in the eyes of the world by Yanqui approval.

      “We gave them three spies and got just two of our people back and there was no promise to return American fugitives that now live on Cuba.” Perhaps there aren’t that many Cubans in American custody that they would want back, or vice-versa (yes, they would want return of their spies, but other criminals–not so much). What benefit is it to Cuba to continue to harbor American fugitives, anyway?

  8. Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 12/23/2014 - 02:38 pm.

    Ummm

    The embargo ISN’T lifted.

    Only congress can not do that.

    (this was in response to Ilya)

  9. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 12/23/2014 - 07:34 pm.

    Interests

    That is correct, the embargo isn’t lifted but the very fact of Obama’s approaching the Castro brothers is playing into their hands. On the other hand, how come I am reading that it will be possible to bring Cuban cigars and alcohol into America and that having more Americans there will open them up? So there is more to that than just exchanging ambassadors, right? This move is throwing a lifeline to Cuba – that is a consensus of most commentators. And if it is all about exchanging ambassadors and a few spies being exchanged, why did it take more than a year of secret negotiations?

    By the way, of course Cuba has an interest in harboring American fugitives – otherwise why was it doing it to begin with?

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 12/24/2014 - 11:04 am.

      Points of Interest

      Cigars and rum may be brought back by visitors to Cuba. There will be no wholesale importation until the embargo is lifted (if you’re curious, though, Cuban rum and cigars are freely available in Canada). American tourism might seem like a gain for the Cubans, but their infrastructure (hotels, etc.) is not up to the additional load. What will happen is the Americans will displace European and Canadian tourists, so no increase there.

      Why the secret negotiations? Perhaps to avoid the right-wing hysteria machine that defines “debate” in this country? Perhaps because diplomacy is often conducted in private?

      American fugitives were harbored out of some imagined revolutionary solidarity. Later, it became habit. I doubt your average Cuban cares about them anymore.

  10. Submitted by richard owens on 12/24/2014 - 09:35 am.

    I too recommend Havana Nocturne

    An all-star cast: Meyer Lansky, Lucky Luciano and the New York syndicate, plus the Tampa Mob of Santo Trafficante.

    Batista got paid to protect the fleecing of American casino and rackets patrons for years.

    I wonder about Marco Rubio’s family. The book mentions a Lansky driver named Rubio who came to Tampa, Florida and then to Las Vegas to work as a dealer in those casinos.

    Lansky thought he could bribe Fidel and the Revolutionaries like he did Batista. When Fidel’s people took Havana, they instead trashed the mob’s casinos.

    An insightful source for pre-Castro history and the role of American “business” in Cuban history.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 12/24/2014 - 09:09 pm.

      I looked up Marco Rubio’s biography

      and while his father worked in Las Vegas after emigrating from Cuba, he has a different first name (Mario) than the Rubios (Tito and Ralph) mentioned in the book.

  11. Submitted by Doug Gray on 12/24/2014 - 09:48 am.

    1. The brothers Castro don’t need a lifeline, from the US or anyone else. They’re pottering along well enough, as they have been since the embargo was imposed and (formal) diplomatic relations broken off in the wake of the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis.

    b. Realistically, there isn’t anything much Cuba has that the US needs from them other than what it got, the release of one contractor and one admitted spy.

    iii. Diplomacy, particularly between formerly estranged states, doesn’t move with the speed of the news cycle. By all reports Hillary Clinton and her people were pushing for this on and off since 2009.

    Oh, and repeating weak arguments doesn’t make them any stronger. Verb sap.

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