AN old photograph of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro has lately been circulating on social media, with speech bubbles in which Che asks, “When will relations with the US be restored?” and a chuckling Fidel responds: “When the United States has a black president and the pope is an Argentinian, like you.”
Recent developments on that front will presumably inject an extra dose of optimism into celebrations marking the 56th anniversary of the Cuban revolution on Jan. 1, given the prospects of at least a gradual easing of the economic squeeze the island has long endured, primarily as the consequence of an ideological vendetta.
The more or less simultaneous announcements in Havana and Washington predicating the inauguration of a new phase in relations took most observers by surprise. The preceding 18 months of negotiations, mostly conducted in Canada, were a well-kept secret, as was the role of Pope Francis as both an intermediary and a guarantor.
As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama had indicated his willingness to push the reset button on ties with Cuba, and as president he has vaguely been reiterating the stance since 2009. But not many people expected much to come of it, given that his “change we can believe in” mantra in most cases added up to precious little. Besides, it was common knowledge that the Miami-based Cuban-American lobby remained implacably opposed to any overtures to Havana.
Intriguingly, though, despite his perceived “softness” toward Cuba, Obama won Florida in both 2008 and 2012. This could partly be attributed to a phenomenon that the more percipient observers have been commenting on for several years: Namely that younger Cuban-Americans tend to be considerably less blockheaded than their parents about the choices Cuba has made since 1959.
There is also a broad tendency to overlook the fact that the Cuban revolutionaries of that era, notwithstanding their disenchantment with imperialism, were perfectly willing to establish mutually respectful relations with Washington. They were disinclined, though, to pander to US diktat on the economic front and the nationalization of US-owned enterprises followed the refusal of American firms to refine crude oil obtained from the Soviet Union.
US designs on Cuba go back a long way, and between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was largely determined by Cuban resistance to annexation that prevented the isle from turning into a second Puerto Rico. Periodic American intervention was almost taken for granted, though, and the dictatorship that Fidel Castro and his comrades overthrew 56 years ago epitomized a neocolonial relationship whereby US-based corporations controlled the Cuban economy and the American mafia operated the casinos and nightclubs in Havana that afforded considerable pleasure to the thousands of tourists who regularly traveled across the Florida Straits.
There is a persistent school of thought that ascribes the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the failed attempt to invade Cuba in 1961 via the Bay of Pigs, essentially as payback for the broken vow from JFK’s dad that his son would restore mafia ascendancy in Havana if the underworld helped to ensconce him in the White House. JFK sensibly refused to provide US air cover for the CIA recruits sent into Cuba under the assumption that the masses would flock to the anti-Castro cause. The following year he also resisted the advice of generals who were eager to nuke Cuba after it emerged that the island was hosting Soviet nuclear missiles, choosing instead to negotiate with Nikita Khrushchev.
More than half a century later, it is still widely assumed that in the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the superpowers, it was Khrushchev who blinked by agreeing to pull out the missiles. However, the Soviet leader crucially got JFK to agree that the US would desist from attempts to invade Cuba.
Washington has stuck by that undertaking, although it didn’t prevent it from doggedly pursuing assassination attempts against Fidel Castro and unceasing efforts at subversion. Meanwhile, which of the two sides blinked in the lead-up to this month’s rapprochement remains a matter of perception, just as the consequences of the new deal remain open to conjecture.
Obama lacks the power to lift the economic blockade imposed in 1960 and reinforced two years later: Only the US Congress can do that, and it will inevitably be reluctant to proceed under Republican control — although by no means are all Republicans opposed to an opening, albeit chiefly under the assumption that restored ties will enable the US to play a more dominant role in determining Cuba’s post-Castro future. Obama himself channeled that line of thought in declaring that the change of tack was necessitated by the fact it hadn’t worked for more than 50 years, rather than because its was reprehensible in the first place.
For several decades now, an annual resolution against the blockade has won overwhelming support in the UN General Assembly, lately with only the US and Israel opposing it. Israel is about the only relevant nation that hasn’t expressed support for the latest US-Cuba initiative, mainly because Havana has been consistent for more than four decades in its backing for the Palestinian cause. It will be interesting to see which way the US votes in 2015.
The US president is meanwhile expected to use his executive powers to loosen the embargo, facilitate travel between the two countries, and to authorize the re-establishment of full diplomatic relations — even though legislators such as the extremist Sen. Marco Rubio have vowed to thwart funding for an embassy and congressional approval of a new ambassador.
The recalcitrance of Rubio and his ilk is echoed on the Cuban side by evidently small pockets of dissidents who have thrived on Uncle Sam’s surreptitious backing and are distraught at the idea of losing it.
Within Cuba, however, there is substantial evidence that even those hungry for greater economic opportunities and a dose of glasnost are keen to retain the most outstanding gains of the revolution, notably the highest standard of education in Latin America and a level of health care that extends to almost a knee-jerk deployment of Cuban doctors in disaster zones the world over.