It may never be announced until it is too late to stop, but the United States and Cuba are moving steadily towards rapprochement by the approximate time that President Barack Obama and the Castro brothers leave power. Whether the goal is achieved depends partly on debates within the Obama administration and whether the Cuban lobby continues its decline.
The latest blow to America's global stature was the United Nations General Assembly 188-2 vote in favor of lifting the US embargo against Cuba. The US kept Israel as the only other "no" vote, but tiny Palau switched from "no" to "abstain." When the State Department cannot dictate the behavior of one of the world’s smallest nations, the reputation of the empire stands stripped in the eyes of the world. By contrast, the US rammed its blocked policy through the compliant majority of the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1964. That vote to isolate Cuba was 15-4, with four abstentions.
The New York Times reprinted an AP article on the General Assembly resolution, but not in the main edition of "the newspaper of record." The disinterest was emblematic of the larger weariness among the vast majority of Americans towards the issue. On the radical Left, whereas ten thousand activists joined the Venceremos Brigades in the late sixties, only a dedicated few today continue to organize against the blockade and for the Cuban Five (now four). It is as if the abnormal situation has been normalized. The difference is that domestic public opinion is on their side.
Some skeptics will question the relevance of a non-binding General Assembly vote. But global opinion becomes increasingly important in a globalized world where military options are few. US diplomatic influence in Central and Latin America, for example, has been chilled if not frozen while the embargo is in place. Even America's traditional European allies have aligned themselves with Russia, China and the Third World on this controversy. American hypocrisy is on neon display as it preaches "free trade" while restraining US corporate access to the Cuban market. The official US policy demanding the removal of Raul Castro and the overturn of Cuba's socialist policies prior to any diplomatic recognition reeks as yet another demand for regime change to a world wary of US intentions.
Of course, the US can continue to ignore world opinion and absorb the diplomatic and economic losses, but for what conceivable reason? Fifty years of blockade has not brought down the Havana regime, but strengthened its position in many ways. Only the aging process will bring the Castro regime to its natural end. Cuba is not a national security threat. "They just want to be treated like a regular country," I was told by Saul Landau in the days before his recent death. It was a sad commentary on a US policy that Landau had opposed actively for fifty years.
President Obama, while an Illinois state senator, said he favored diplomatic relations with Cuba, and there is no reason to believe that his ultimate goal has changed. The difference is in the office he holds. But despite obstacles in Congress and US law, the evidence is that the president is steadily moving towards normalization with as little drama as possible, though it is too gradual for the Left and dangerously rapid to the Right. Since taking office, Obama has lifted many of the Bush era's most onerous travel restrictions. Organized diplomatic talks are ongoing about resuming direct mail service, immigration reforms, drug interdiction programs and the like. An astonishing 400,000 Cuban-Americans annually travel freely to and from the island, sending back hundreds of millions of US dollars in remittances. The Cuban government has loosened restrictions on private enterprises, and plans to shift away from its dual currency. The regime is opening opportunities for Cuban athletes to sign contracts and collect earnings from other countries; however, the US embargo policy still forbids an athlete residing in Cuba from earning money in the United States.
Still ahead for the Obama administration are the obstacles of:
- Ending its onerous policy of financial blockades of third countries seeking business with Cuba;
- The continued State Department listing of Cuba as "terrorist state", which causes financial headaches for the Cubans;
- Its frustrated efforts to obtain the return of Alan Gross, the AID contractor imprisoned in Cuba for 15 years for smuggling high-tech communications equipment.
Most important, politically, is the broken hammerlock of Cuba's right-wing exile community over national politics. Obama won Florida after pledging to lift travel restrictions for Cuban Americas, a proposal which was fiercely opposed by representatives like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Senator Marco Rubio. Clearly most Miami Cubans do not think of themselves as "exiles" so much as bi-national immigrants with families and economic interests on both sides of the waters. They support free travel and exchange. Unable to any longer dictate US Cuban policy, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has taken to attacking Obama for "kowtowing to the Castro dictatorship," as recently as November 4th.
That leaves Democratic Senator Robert Menendez to uphold the anti-Cuba banner on behalf of his constituents in Union City. Obama and the Democrats are dependent on Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, for assistance on virtually every foreign policy issue, while Menendez is said to ask for veto power over Cuba policy in return. One reason the president and Democrats approach Menendez with care is to keep his support for a prospective immigration reform package. It is widely believed in Washington that Menendez has pledged his support for the Democrats' immigrant rights in exchange for maintaining the Cuban blockade. Unfortunately, that has not moved the Congress to an agreement on immigration reform so far, while the US-Cuban rapprochement on several practical issues is moving right along. Washington officials whom I have interviewed find it hard to believe Obama cannot finesse the Menendez obstacle when and if the moment comes.
Meanwhile Obama can expand travel licenses and ease his economic pressure by executive decision. His State Department can remove Cuba from the terrorism list, and he can orchestrate a complex resolution of the case of the Cuban Five. One of those five, Rene Gonzalez, is living in Cuba and serving his supervised probation there, as the result of a signal from the Obama Justice Department to a recalcitrant Florida federal judge. Three more of the Five will finish their lengthy prison terms soon, leaving one Cuban, Gerardo Hernandez, serving a double-life term. If Hernandez was exchanged for Alan Gross, without explicit acknowledgement of the nexus, both could be home in the near future. Ros-Lehtinen and Menendez would find it problematic in Florida’s and New Jersey's Jewish communities to insist that Gross not be release in a de facto trade.
Nothing in the US-Cuba relationship happens on a logical path, and the "near future" can be a long time to the impatient. Neither side wants diplomatic recognition at any price. But with the arc of history pointing to the ending of both the Obama and Castro eras, with the Cold War over, and with Cuba securely anchored in a new Latin America, the greatest interest of both countries lies in controlling a diplomatic transition rather than allowing another opportunity to float away.
Tom Hayden is researching and writing a book on the history of the Cuban Revolution and the US New Left (Seven Stories Press, 2014), For more analysis and information, contact the Latin American Working Group and Mavis Anderson.