The geopolitical world shifted on its axis last week and when it came to rest, Miami was no longer the turning point of U.S.-Cuba policy. Washington, after more than half a century of letting Miami Cubans set that policy, finally took back the reins. But in what direction are we headed?
Toward “normalized” relations between two old adversaries, the president says. He’s proposing a framework for a new, productive relationship between the United States and Cuba. Obama admits it won’t be easy after more than 50 years of mistrust, derring-do and saber-rattling. More than just rattling, of course — those were nuclear missiles aimed at the United States in 1962, and Fidel Castro wanted to use them on us Yankee imperialists. It was Khrushchev who saw that it would be madness.
Now, it’s brother Raúl, in full military regalia, who says President Obama is a guy he can do business with. And Obama is evidently ready to do business with a brutal and ruthless Communist (Raúl was a Marxist before Fidel was) who personally gave the order to shoot down the two Brothers to the Rescue planes, killing four brave young people on a humanitarian mission.
That’s one reason why there were cries of outrage in Miami after the rapprochement was announced in Washington and Havana. So many in our community lost their homes, businesses, careers and country to the barbudos who came down from the Sierra Maestra. A friend remembers as a little girl watching them march past her home in Santa Clara, Che Guevara leading the pack. She says they were frightening. They’re still frightening, the Cuban Communist viejos and their progeny, to anyone familiar with the Castro brothers’ sordid and violent history.
And history will not absolve them.
Because Cuba didn’t have huge deposits of valuable minerals (except bauxite) or vast oil fields, Washington put Cuba on the back burner for the most part. Except to fret over immigration problems and Cuba’s talent for exporting revolution to Latin America and fighting the occasional proxy war in Africa. Washington had plenty of other problems to worry about, so it let Cuban Americans control U.S. policy. It did so because the Cuban diaspora to its great credit, voted in overwhelming numbers in every election and wrote big checks to politicians. Those check writers formed powerful lobbies. Currently, it’s the U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC, and before that the Cuban American National Foundation. As its leader, Jorge Mas Canosa, once said after being criticized for romancing some powerful Democrats, “We don’t have friends or enemies in Washington, we have interests.”
President Obama has decided that his interests in Cuba are paramount — his legacy, too. Just as Richard Nixon opened relations with China, Obama wants to be remembered as the president who opened relations with Cuba. Obama’s clearly right that the U.S. policy in place for 53 years hasn’t changed anything in Cuba and never will. But it’s far from a sure thing that Obama’s Cuba policy will succeed in turning Cuba into a more open, democratic and free society.
If you looks closely at what’s been proposed, you find no assurances that ordinary Cubans will have any of the basic human rights they’re now denied. Raúl himself said in a speech Saturday that nothing in Cuba’s closed, authoritarian system will change. He’s getting the better end of this deal.
What’s the United States getting? The possibility that an influx of Americans, carrying credit cards and capital, will spread democratic values. Once the toothpaste of democracy is out of the tube, the thinking goes, Castro won’t be able to put it back. It’s a lovely thought and here’s hoping it happens. But it hasn’t worked over the decades that Canada and all the Western European democracies have had a strong presence in Cuba. My guess is that Cuba’s economy may become less centrally planned and more capitalistic, but its political system will remain shut tight. Cuba may become the Vietnam of our hemisphere.
Whatever happens next will require cooperation from Congress, hardly a sure thing. Sen. Marco Rubio promises to “unravel” the deal and he’ll get some help from like-minded congressmen. The embargo, though mostly a fiction, can only be lifted by Congress. We’re looking at a long, slow process before anything the president announced comes to pass.
In the meantime, Miami’s anti-Castro industry, which has thrived for half a century, will start to wither. The anti-Castro rallies at Café Versailles, and the news media that rush to cover them, will eventually wither, too. Until the day Fidel dies. I won’t just cover that celebration, I’ll join in.