Two years ago, on the feast day of St. Lazarus, President Barack Obama shifted five decades of U.S.-Cuba policy from a strategy of sanctions and isolation to one of friendly gestures and engagement.
Change came on Dec. 17, 2014, with no warning, no news leaks — boom, just like that, a miracle, the promise of a new day in Cuba and in exile dawning by way of a presidential breaking-news press conference.
People wept with joy on both sides of the Florida Straits.
But in hindsight, the religious and cultural connection of the announcement to the day Cubans on the island and some quarters of exile worship San Lázaro in his Catholic and Yoruba deity form (or both) was an early clue to the shaky ground the U.S. State Department was traversing on the path to re-establish relations with Cuba.
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Too much kitsch (saints, celebrities and rock ’n’ roll as goodwill ambassadors in Commie Disneyland). Too much wishful thinking (the American invasion will change minds and hearts). Too much listening to one facet of the Cuban story (the Democrats’ version) on which a hopeful narrative was built by the administration — and never reassessed, even after the possibility that the bunker mentality would prevail in Castroland became a reality.
Obama’s Cuba policy didn’t address a key factor: In times of discontent, the Castro regime has opened the floodgates for people to leave. The opening called for a new U.S. immigration policy to be in place, too, to keep the pressure on the government to change at boiling point. Yet, when the response to engagement was more people leaving, the administration turned a blind eye for fear of unleashing a mass exodus that was already well under way — and still is, day after day, as boatloads wash ashore in South Florida, post Fidel Castro’s death.
In dribbles, most of the Obama administration’s moves amounted to a bushel of carrots and a soft-stick policy — although the president’s finest moment shouldn’t be lost to history. Speaking in Havana — a feat no U.S. president even attempted — President Obama wiped away the Castro regime’s excuse to repress, assuring them that the United States did not pose a threat to Cuban sovereignty. Obama chipped away with presidential directives at every barrier he could, without Congress’ approval, to open the door to U.S. investment on the island, travel and trade.
But he was dragged into the complexities of a 58-year dictatorship only 90 miles from U.S. shores that has outlasted every American president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. He acted with good intentions, and when he made a rousing case for democracy on live Cuban television — and Cuban spirits soared with the possibilities of freedom and prosperity — the Castroite hard-line responded by cracking down on the population’s enthusiasm. No amount of rum and cigar diplomacy has been able to again raise the level of hope of that occasion — and Obama’s overly generous diplomacy did, I’m convinced, play a role in Hillary Clinton losing Florida and the presidential election.
Two years into rapprochement, no matter what President Obama’s administration does or says, no matter the political developments in either country, Raúl Castro only represses more dissidents and independent journalists. And he crushes the hopes of budding entrepreneurs by reaffirming time and again that all business has to be funneled through the government, not via people-to-people exchanges.
It’s tough to judge if there has been any real progress.
The Obama administration doesn’t leave the safe zone of diplomatic speak and nebulous claims to “real progress that is making life better for Cubans right now,” according to national security adviser Ben Rhodes, one of the architects of Obama’s Cuba policy. But there is, he acknowledged at a briefing this week, “plenty of space for improvement in U.S.-Cuba relations.”
Everything, however, is under question now with the incoming wildcard administration of President-elect Donald Trump, and — if the Republican Senate confirms him — his Russia-loving, Putin-friendly Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Bringing change to Cuba isn’t about reaching “a better deal,” as Trump tweeted, but about a smarter approach, one that comes with transparency and progress. No retrenchment on relations because no amount of posturing has ever changed a thing in Cuba. Dictatorships by definition don’t operate that way. Change has to come from within.
The restoration of diplomatic relations calls for nuance, caution, calibrated moves — and yes, still a hopeful narrative that supports the force of change unleashed with engagement. If it’s real, it’s unstoppable and won’t end with this American administration or the next one.
Diplomatic relations between the two countries should exist. Period. Isolation didn’t work for almost six decades. Engagement between Cubans and Americans and diplomatic talks should continue, no matter what Raúl Castro does to bait the United States into breaking up like in the old days.
There was brilliance to what President Obama launched on St. Lazarus’ feast day. Only some of us just want to scream now: Leave Cuba alone.
Time to stop using Cuba for American political purposes.