There aren’t many people who could remain indifferent to the sight of the Cuban flag fluttering alongside the Stars and Stripes on the limousine containing the president of the United States at Havana’s José Martí airport. It took over half a century for Washington to realize that patent hostility, political pressure, isolation, and economic and many other kinds of sanctions not only failed to break the resistance of proud Cuban men and women but also brought more harm than benefit to the USA itself – if one can speak of benefit of any sort.
President Obama has obviously grasped that the Nobel Prize for Peace he received “on loan” was actually worth earning. His most fanatical opponents, above all the ones in Washington, who are eclipsed only by the jejune presidential candidate Donald Trump, see his trip to Havana as an act of treason. But that’s just a rather pathetic way of (not) conceding the crushing defeat of U.S. policy by another country, a small but proud one. On the other hand, there’s a large number of people who anticipated, almost eight years ago now, that the first African-American president in U.S. history would go so far as to paint the White House black and proclaim a world revolution; they were disappointed in due course, because they didn’t realize that Barack Obama was the American president who, guided by American interests, was going to carry out American policies. With that as his starting point, Obama recognized the mistakes of the arrogant – and bullying – behavior towards Cuba and set out on the only possible path of change.
Whether or not a step like this is worthy of the Nobel is debatable, but undoubtedly we are talking of a portentous move that will disperse the pall hanging over an international relationship characterized by, among other things, a regrettable absence of visionaries and the leadership of skilled statesmen.
This is how we can explain the slap in the face relating to protocol that the guest had to endure straightaway at the airport. By not going to meet and greet Obama, the Cuban president sent a clear message, and this turned the American’s flight to Havana into a version of the journey to Canossa. This was certainly not a momentary whim of the host, but rather a political move that was prepared long ago, and that could not have happened without the advance agreement of the Americans. By approving of this gesture, the guests were demonstrating how much this visit meant to them and – especially at the symbolic level – how prepared they were for concessions as the only way to scrap decades-old policies meant to belittle and lord it over Cubans.
Naturally it would be fantasy to expect that relations between Washington and Havana will now suddenly turn into a bed of roses: decades of more or less open animosity have created problems by the score, the complex ramifications of which extend into the most sensitive interests of both countries. The American military base at Guantanamo Bay is certainly the highest hurdle on this path. But these manifold problems include those originating with the assumption of power by Castro’s revolutionaries and the toppling of the dictator Batista and the sidelining of his protectors in the form of American politicians, business oligarchs, and infamous mafiosi. Cuba was then encircled by a high fence of political isolation and economic sanctions, the financial effects of which are estimated at over $180 billion – at Cuba’s expense, of course. Other than North Korea, Cuba is the only country in the world where there is no Coca-Cola, and the U.S. is the only place where it’s forbidden to import Cuban cigars.
Many things point to the fact that both sides are interested in mending relations. For instance, currently, and at least in public, both sides are pushing aside, or handling in a conciliatory manner, events such as the tragi-comic invasion at the Bay of Pigs, the “missile crisis” of the early 1960s, Cuban military engagement in Africa and its help to leftist regimes and guerrilla movements across Latin America – plus questions of restitution, etc.
There’s no point in pretending that such painful topics will be forgotten in the long, difficult, and sensitive negotiations that will, necessarily over a period of years, blaze the trail of normalization of relations between the two states. Thus there will have to come a time for negotiations about compensation to American companies for their nationalized property (luxurious villas and vacation homes, hotels, casinos, airports, industrial installations, roads and other infrastructure, mines and plantations, and financial resources held in the “tax paradise” that was pre-revolutionary Cuba, and more). The American government agency that fields requests for restitution has up to this point received paperwork for suits totaling over $8 billion, and that sum will, it is expected, increase several fold.
On the political level, Barack Obama was not able to avoid noting that he found the Cuban approach to human rights unacceptable, but President Castro did not get his dander up and hit back with the question that was customary in the past: “And how do you treat Native Americans in your country?” Instead, he calmly enumerated the rights to work, education, health care, and social security as constituent elements of the overall corpus of civil rights, while to journalists’ questions about political prisoners he coolly requested that they send him a list of their names so that he could release “every last one of them” on the spot. By refraining from sharp exchanges over these issues, both presidents evinced an enviable degree of statesmanship, and – what’s far more significant – underscored their readiness to direct their political energy, without abandoning their strategic positions, to the search for shared interests in the spirit of neighborliness and cooperation.
It would be pointless to indulge in prediction about Cuban-American relations. But one thing is certain: in the future nothing is going to stay the same, because there is no return from the path they’ve set out on. For years now people have been speculating about whether, with the departure of the Castro brothers, Cuba will again become a “floating Las Vegas.” Some are already agitating again for Cuba to become the fifty-somethingth state of the U.S.A. It would appear that least numerous are those who ultimately want to do the right thing and see Cuba as a free and independent country that is engaged in fair and friendly cooperation with the United States and in which human rights and democratic institutions are respected.
Nonetheless there is still a better than even chance that people in Havana will soon be drinking Coke, and, in New York, they’ll be smoking real cohibas.
Translated by John K. Cox (History, North Dakota State U)