Whatever else endures from President Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, what will remain irreversible is the simple truth he acknowledged: that Cuba is a sovereign country with a legitimate government and whose independence must be respected and considered permanent.
This was a radical departure for U.S. foreign policy. In fact, the opposite approach – that the island’s identity and destiny should be determined by the American republic – was not a response to Fidel Castro’s revolution, but predated it by nearly two centuries.
John Adams, himself a revolutionary, called Cuba “an object of transcendent importance to the political and commercial interests of our Union.” He went on to say, “It is scarcely possible to resist the conviction that the annexation of Cuba to our federal republic will be indispensable to the continuance and integrity of the Union itself.”
More than any single sanction, it is this centuries-old current – running through Adams to the Monroe Doctrine to occupations of Cuba by U.S. troops after its war of independence, to the embargo itself – which President Obama dedicated the final years of his presidency to trying to reverse.
To be clear, we do not minimize – indeed, we celebrate – the achievements of the President’s opening to Cuba, and there are many. His reforms have provided tangible benefits to Cuba’s people and to ours (we list some and hyperlink to others in the summary below).
But none of them could have been realized by adhering rigidly to the harshest regime of sanctions we’ve imposed on any nation. Or by refusing to talk to Cuba on any subject, with the telling exception of regulating migration, until Cuba relinquished its communist system.
This policy, with its conceit that we know better than Cubans how to organize their internal affairs, inevitably shaped Cuba’s conception of its own sovereignty and its closest neighbor. Against this backdrop, it is hardly a surprise that Cuba’s government never buckled. Unlike every one of his predecessors since Eisenhower, only Obama got the joke.
So he replaced the search for Cuban concessions with a more practical logic: that Cuba’s success was better for the United States than its failure, and that acknowledging Cuba’s sovereignty was a precondition for a diplomacy capable of producing agreements that realized our mutual interests.
This meant that President Obama also understood, as Fulton Armstrong, an early architect of normalization, said in Havana this week, that “Cuba’s own vision for its future – if successfully implemented – had many elements that benefited both countries, both countries’ interests, and both peoples.”
This also reflected, he went on to say, “two sub-judgments: that Cuba had a plan for its future and that its implementation would indirectly validate normalization and deepen it.” Thus, President Obama could both respect Cuba’s sovereignty and honor Cuba’s right to organize its internal affairs without “our help.”
The fact that President Obama would shake President Castro’s hand, meet with him publicly in Panama at the Summit of the Americas, take questions with him from the press corps in Havana, salute Cuba’s role in fighting Ebola in West Africa and in ending the fighting in Colombia’s civil war – all of this built confidence essential for holding successful negotiations.
Now, there are bilateral agreements reconnecting Cuba and the U.S. by postal service, direct telephone service, and regularly scheduled commercial air travel. Now, as the Washington Office on Latin America’s Geoff Thale said in Havana this week, there are direct cop-to-cop contacts between Cuban authorities and their DEA and FBI counterparts. There is real-time contact between our two countries’ Coast Guards and Border Patrol, to conduct effective operations when ships are lost at sea.
Thanks to direct negotiations with the Cubans, “American patients are getting access to a lifesaving Cuban lung cancer vaccine, Cubans are getting greater access to the internet, and Cuban entrepreneurs are getting greater access to U.S. travelers who are now visiting their restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, and small businesses in record numbers,” said Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.
These results and others, as Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy said last week, give lie to statements by the most vociferous opponents of the Obama opening. “They continually say that the only Cubans who have benefited from the new opening are Raul Castro and the Cuban military.”
In fact, Sen. Leahy continued, “the Cuban people, particularly Cuban entrepreneurs, have benefited and so have the American people. And they overwhelmingly want this opening to continue. Those who label the policy of engagement a failure after just two years,” he concluded, “because the Castro government continues to persecute its opponents are either naïve or not to be taken seriously.”
Thanks to the eminent scholar Dr. Soraya Castro, Fulton, Geoff, and dozens of us were together in Havana this week to consider whether the era of engagement, which started on December 17th 2014, would continue or whether a new era of estrangement would soon commence.
Hanging over this conversation was the reality that as President-elect Trump’s administration starts in January, the final thirteen months of President Castro’s tenure will begin.
We’ll know, soon enough, whether someone who treasures American sovereignty, the security of our borders, and the essential value of fair, two-way trade, as Donald Trump does, can build on what the Obama-Castro diplomatic partnership produced. Assuming he gets the joke, and treats President Castro seriously in his search for a better deal.
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