It was Albert Einstein who once famously said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” That perfectly describes our relationship with Cuba over the last fifty plus years.
Three days ago, following months of secret negotiations between his administration and the Cuban government, President Obama announced that the US policy of attempting to isolate Cuba has not worked and he was indeed trying something new. He stated that his administration would resume normal diplomatic relationships with the Cuban government and reduce travel restrictions between the two countries. To understand why the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba is long overdue, you have to go back to the roots of the original rift between the two countries.
It was the height of the Cold War when the United States first instituted a commercial, economic, and financial embargo of Cuba October 19, 1960 and then formally broke diplomatic relationships with the country January 3, 1961. Fidel Castro was in the process of formulating a political, financial and military alliance with the Soviet Union, our mortal enemy, and Cuba essentially became an armed enemy camp in our backyard. The Castro government had also nationalized the property of many American companies.
After our blotched attempt to support an armed invasion of 1400 US trained Cuban counter revolutionaries at the Bay of Pig April 17, 1961, our worst fears were realized. In October of 1962 our surveillance planes detected that the Soviets were construing mid-range and intermediate range ballistic missiles sites in Cuba which would be capable of delivering nuclear weapons to most of the US. During a very tense 13 day standoff between the United States and its President, John F. Kennedy, and the Soviet Union’s Nikita Khrushchev, the world stood on the brink of nuclear war.
After Khrushchev blinked and the missiles sites were removed, the period following marked the absolute low point in US/Cuban relations. In 1975 a US Senate committee documented eight attempts by the CIA to assassinate Fidel Castro between 1960 and 1965, but there were undoubtedly many more. We also did everything in our power to insure that our allies had nothing to do with Cuba.
Of course, most of this occurred a long time ago and since then the world has changed dramatically. When the USSR fell apart in December of 1991, the cold war officially ended. Russia had neither the money nor the interest in continuing to prop up the Cuban government economically. However, our adversarial relationship with the Soviet Union’s former client state less than 100 miles from our shores remained. For over fifty years now, the US has refused to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba, and our embargo remained in place and was even strengthened over the years.
Many believe that normal relations with Cuba would have been restored many years ago but for the expatriate Cubans living in Southern Florida who fled Cuba when Castro came to power. They are a small, but very vocal voting block in Florida. Over the years that voting block has often played a critical role in capturing this large swing state in Presidential elections.. The former Cubans in Florida hated the man who drove them from their homes in Cuba and neither party wanted to risk alienating them with proposals to normalize relations with Cuba.
However, those of the original generation of Cubans who fled to Florida after the Castro takeover are quite old and they have begun to fade from the scene. As a group, their children and other Cubans who later arrived in Florida are not quite as strident and are even interested in visiting the island of their ancestry.
Other things have changed as well. Originally considered an outlaw country by most the world after Castro took over the Cuban government, Cuba now has some kind of diplomatic relations with 160 counties. Many of these countries have ambassadors and embassies in Havana.
While the US has maintained its strict embargo of Cuba and has leaned heavily on other countries not to trade with Cuba, Israel has been the only country to follow our lead. Many of our closest allies including Canada, Austria and Great Britain trade freely with Cuba.
In addition, there has been a change in the attitude of American voters towards Cuba and the proof is the polls. In 1998 38% of respondents favored restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba. Today that number is 68% and among younger respondents it is 90%. Likewise in 1998, 35% of respondents favored the lifting of restrictions for Americans wanting to travel to Cuba. Today that number is 69% and a large majority – 71% – responded that the US embargo of Cuba has not worked at all or has not worked very well and should be scrapped.
In summary, the world is now very different than it was fifty years ago and President Obama’s new stance towards Cuba is an important step moving the United States out of the past and into the present reality. Several Republican politicians, especially those rooted in the Cuban American community, have come out strongly against the President’s move pointing out the lack of democracy in Cuba and the poor human rights record of the Cuban government currently run by Fidel’s brother Raul Castro. On those scores they have some valid points.
Cuba is still a communist country and anyone protesting the government will likely be thrown into jail. On the other hand, no one seems to object to the US having diplomatic relations and international trade with China and Vietnam, both communist countries with less than admirable human rights records. We haven’t even broken diplomatic ties with Russia though Putin has violated international laws and has sent his army to invade a sovereign country. On the other hand, we have used trade and financial sanctions to punish Putin’s bad behavior. It is very clear that the United States has more leverage over other countries when we trade with them and can communicate with them diplomatically.
On the other hand, we have tried to use an embargo, travel restrictions and suspension of diplomatic relations, as well as some less moral methods, to push for a regime change in Cuba. We have been remarkably unsuccessful; the Castro government is still very much in power. Like President Obama, I believe that the best way to ensure that the Cuban government moves towards democracy and away from human rights abuses is encourage a people to people interchange between the two countries’ populations. Only then can the Cuban people be exposed to the advantages of our system of government and the freedom of our people.
While Cuba has made good progress in educating and providing good medical care for its people and their crime rate is one of the lowest in the world, the average Cuban makes only $20 dollars week. Good housing is hard to find and often three generations of a family live in a single house. Internet service is rare and the cars on the streets of Havana are mostly vintage American automobiles held together with makeshift parts. Meat and some other consumer goods are scarce. While our shunning of Cuba has not brought down the Castro government, it has adversely affected the Cuban people. Yet, the Cuban people generally view Americans positively. It is time to quit punishing the people of Cuba for the sins of their government.
While our President has made bold moves to normalize relations with Cuba using executive orders, only Congress can agree to do away with the US embargo on trade. The Republicans in Congress might well refuse to move forward with such legislation. They could also refuse to approve the President’s nomination of an ambassador to Cuba. However, no matter how the Republicans who now control both Houses of Congress choose to handle those issues, one thing is sure – our ongoing relationship with the people of Cuba has been permanently changed, and it has been changed for the better.