Ay Obama/Ay Obama
go a little crazy
come to Havana.
Grupo Interactivo (Cuban pop band)
It’s often assumed, or even taken for granted, that U.S. policy on Cuba is not dictated in Washington but in Miami by Cuban exiles who would rather die than allow Washington to negotiate with Havana. This interpretation holds the politics of a single Florida county responsible for a conflict that has lasted more than half a century. That may be one factor, but the real explanation is more complex.
Since the end of the Cold War, Cuba’s profile on the United States’ strategic radar has diminished. The island no longer has the significance it did nearly a quarter of a century ago when it had 50,000 soldiers in Angola and maintained a political alliance with the Soviet Union.
President Obama probably dedicates mere minutes to Cuba compared with the hours he devotes to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, North Korea, Pakistan, China, Russia, Venezuela, Ukraine, etc. Yet Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, is part of the maritime hub that will emerge after the enlargement of the Panama Canal. And if you look at a map, the Gulf ports closest to Mariel, Cuba, are Houston, New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., not Veracruz or Maracaibo.
In this new context, a current is emerging in the U.S. attitude toward Cuba that appears more favorable to change. In November, Obama told the Cuban-American lobby that U.S. strategy ought to remain open to the changes on the island, and he acknowledged the idea that “the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.” One month later, he was shaking Cuban President Raul Castro’s hand at the memorial for Nelson Mandela.
Should these signs lead to real change, what U.S. political and geostrategic interests could be furthered by a rapprochement?
In economic terms, the embargo is beneficial to no one. Lifting it, or letting it fade away, could encompass the interests of farming states and agribusinesses, tourism and the biomedical, maritime transportation, pharmaceutical and oil industries, as well as U.S. ports along the Gulf of Mexico. It would also free a sector of Cuban American businessmen held hostage by established policy, allowing them to participate actively in bilateral economic relations.
In terms of security, dialogue would allow for a more permanent cooperation on drug-trafficking interception, air and sea security, coordination between military forces, civil defense and hurricane preparation, mutual public health challenges, protection of migratory species and shared environmental interests.
If the United States cares to influence the internal context of the island, the embargo policy is counterproductive. Without opportunities for active communication between U.S. institutions and the island, influence is impossible. Blocking the front door while opening windows of communication are mutually inconsistent policies.
Dialogue and discreet diplomacy — what the Canadians call “constructive engagement” — have functioned better than external pressure toward Cuba. The Vatican and the European Union, which could hardly be suspected of sympathizing with the Cuban government, can bear witness to that approach.
The argument that this quiet, constructive engagement has not brought about a transformation of the Cuban political system misunderstands not only Cuba but also the examples of China and Vietnam. In the latter two cases, the subject of human rights has been a prominent part of their bilateral dialogue with the United States for more than 20 years. But if their internal policies and legislation have moved forward in this area, it has been in response more to their internal dynamics than to heavy-handed external pressure.
Never before has there been a Latin American context — in the region and within Cuba — more favorable to the normalization of bilateral relations. And recent polls have found that a majority of Americans, including in Florida, favor better relations with Cuba.
Obama has taken audacious steps in his second term toward the resolution of old conflicts, and he has negotiated with countries that are far more intractable for U.S. policy than Cuba, such as Myanmar, Iran and Syria. None of these conflicts is less complicated in terms of security and international policy than that of Cuba. None has cried out so long for resolution.
The Obama-Castro handshake picture in Johannesburg, South Africa, had an important effect that triggered unusual hopes. This gesture, symbolic as it was, was widely supported by the international media and public opinion. The U.S. government now knows what kind of positive effects it might see if, one day, it decides to follow the infectious rhythm of Grupo Interactivo and come to Havana.
Rafael Hernandez is chief editor of Temas, a Cuban social science magazine, and the co-editor of “Shall We Play Ball? Debating U.S.-Cuban Relations.”