‘Art of coexistence’
Almost 56 years after Cuban rebels led by Fidel Castro established a “revolutionary socialist state” in Cuba, 54 years after the United States imposed a trade embargo on the island-state, 34 years after the Castro government allowed a mass exodus of some 125,000 Cubans to the US mainland, 22 years after the UN General Assembly voted for the first time to urge the United States to end the embargo, almost seven years since Castro resigned and named his brother Raul as successor, and over 20 months since the first pope from the Americas was elected in a surprise conclave, the governments of Cuba and the United States have reached a historic agreement to begin normalizing official relations—with some help from Pope Francis and his diplomats in the Vatican.
The superpower and the small country, “divided by just 90 miles of water but oceans of mistrust and hostility,” as the New York Times noted, have had a troubled relationship going back to the 19th century. Precisely because of its nearness to the US mainland, Cuba became a flashpoint in the Spanish-American War. (This helps explain the controversial American residual presence in Guantanamo Bay.) In the 1960s, it became a flashpoint in the Cold War between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Many historians agree that the world came closest to a nuclear war over Soviet plans to establish missile sites in Cuba, during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Now both the Soviet Union and the Cold War are no more (although, to be sure, Russia under Vladimir Putin has considerably lowered the temperature in official relations with the West again). But the economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation the United States sought to impose on Cuba remain, one of the last reminders of the Cold War era.
In a televised speech, US President Barack Obama said the “new chapter” rejects a “rigid policy” that had not met its objectives. “We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries.” Speaking simultaneously in Havana, Cuban President Raul Castro welcomed the breakthrough. “This decision of President Obama deserves the respect and acknowledgement of our people. The progress attained in the interchange shows it is possible to find solutions to many problems. As we have repeated we should learn the art of coexistence in a civilized manner with our differences.”
Both governments made special mention of Pope Francis’ intervention. Obama, in particular, explained the Pope’s role in some detail. “His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me and to Cuba’s president, Raul Castro, urging us to resolve Alan’s case [involving Alan Gross, an American telecommunications contractor the Cuban government sent to jail on espionage charges] and to address Cuba’s interests in the release of three Cuban agents, who’ve been jailed in the United States for over 15 years.” The Pope’s diplomats also hosted at least one secret meeting in the Vatican.
The two governments’ praise for the Pope seems sincere, but it is also strategic. The imprimatur of the Catholic Church will help legitimize the agreement in largely Catholic Central and South America. The Church’s support will also undercut the expected backlash from Republican conservatives in the United States, who see Obama’s diplomatic initiative as a sellout.
A senator from Florida with Cuban roots, Marco Rubio, wasted no time in denouncing the breakthrough. “This entire policy shift is based on a lie and illusion, that more access to money and goods will translate to more political freedom.” Rubio’s own Cuban-American community supports the deal, however, and the role of the Catholic Church in making the deal possible should generate more support among Hispanics in the United States.
This support is necessary, as Republican control of both chambers of the US Congress by next month will make a lifting of the embargo (which requires an act of Congress) even more unlikely in the last two years of Obama’s presidency. Despite the misgivings and maneuverings of the Republican right, however, the agreement is a genuine breakthrough, a (belated) righting of history.
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