President Obama’s visit to Havana last week belongs to the grand spectacles of history. Though it should have happened a long time ago, for irrational reasons it remained elusive, resisting the change of times. The animosity and venom directed towards Cuba from the United States, since its revolution in 1959, deserves to be examined through psychological analysis rather than foreign policy theories.
Long before the ‘Bearded’ led by Fidel Castro took control of Havana, its neighbours from the north believed that Cuba could, “… only gravitate towards the North American Union,” as was expressed by a 19th century American president John Quincy Adams. Twice in history the US offered to purchase the Caribbean island and when the second bid in 1897 failed, it invaded the island a year later and occupied it until 1902.
Allowing for Cuban independence was accompanied by some draconian restrictions on any future government’s freedom to run the country. The ‘lease’ of the naval base in Guantanamo Bay is a relic of this infamous Platt Amendment, which infringed on Cuban independence. In the aftermath of the revolution the island became a national and irrational obsession in Washington.
Successive administrations have engaged in numerous attempts to topple Fidel Castro, through assassination plots of El Lider Maximo and by imposing an inhumane embargo, which has caused immense suffering to the Cuban people and accomplished the opposite of the intended objectives. It helped to consolidate the power for the Communist Party in Cuba. At one point in 1962, the hostility between the two countries nearly led the world the closest it has ever been to a nuclear cataclysm.
Obama’s visit to Cuba was another step in rebuilding bridges with the Cuban people and the government led by Raul Castro. Not surprisingly, the progress in the normalization of relations between the two countries is slower that what both Cuban and US leadership would like it to be. It is the result of a hostile political arena in Washington, especially in a Republican ruled Congress. It is incapable of accepting a thaw in relations with Cuba, as long as there is a Castro in power or the prevalence of the socialist values of the Cuban Revolution on the island.
Obama’s visit last week struck the right tone, but it still left many questions unanswered.Yossi Mekelberg
This narrow minded and outdated approach by the US Congress is in complete contrast to Obama’s vision towards Cuba. The US president seems to have a new spring in his step since the last mid-term elections. Without having to face the American electorate anymore, he is more prepared to take on Congress in advancing US interests, as he genuinely sees them. In the Cuban case, he also had to ignore the toxic resistance from the anti-Castro Cuban diaspora, based mainly in Florida, to any change of policy towards the Communist Party in Havana.
It took ten American presidents and fifty-four years, since President Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations with Cuba, for an American president to come to his senses and to reverse the counter-productive measure and resume diplomatic relations with Havana. In his last State of the Union Address Obama summed up the failure of US foreign policy towards Cuba accurately by asserting that “Fifty years of isolating Cuba had failed to promote democracy, and set us back in Latin America.
That’s why we restored diplomatic relations… opened the door to travel and commerce, positioned ourselves to improve the lives of the Cuban people.” Also in his speech in Havana last week he acknowledged these mistakes once again, insisting that he refused to be trapped in the history of the geo-politics and clash of personalities of the past.
Sadly, the US legislative process considerably slows down the rapprochement between Washington and Havana. It was in the hands of the President to decide on the resumption of diplomatic relations, but it is only Congress who can remove the economic embargo. Holding out on the embargo, stems from their blind hatred for the Castros, socialism and is a Pavlovian reaction to any policy initiated by Obama. Citing human rights violations in Cuba as the reason for maintaining the sanctions, is extremely hypocritical.
There is no doubt that Cuba could and should improve its human rights record, especially towards political dissidents. Nevertheless, it is rich coming from Republican legislators, who support close economic and political relations with some of the worst offenders of human rights in world affairs. Moreover, they have never condemned the occupation of part of Cuba by the US, in the guise of a lease, and the torture of suspected, though not convicted, terrorists by their fellow countrymen in Guantanamo Bay for more than 14 years.
In the meantime, it is left for President Obama to render the embargo on Cuba meaningless through the use of executive powers. This has proved rather efficient in kick-starting agreements on transport and tourism for instance. It is actually the Cubans, who are taking risks in engaging with an economy which is disproportionately larger. Especially considering the US’s strong tendency to impose its will on weaker trade partners, and demonstrate insensitivities to ideological and cultural differences.
As the US President’s Air Force One took off from Havana’s Jose Marti airport, Cuba is preparing for the next chapter in its history. In a matter of a few weeks, the Communist Party will gather for one of its most critical conventions. Since the Party’s Congress only takes place every five years, this one is of special importance, as it marks the beginning of the end of the enmity with the United States and also the last one with a Castro at the helm. As always, for this friendly nation, relations with the United States are going to be crucial for the future of the island. Obama’s visit last week struck the right tone, but it still left many questions unanswered.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.