President Obama’s decision to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, following 18 months of secret talks, is one of the smartest decisions he’s made as president.
Obama announced last week that the United States will open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than 50 years, symbolizing the end of enmity between the two Cold War archrivals. The Obama administration will also ease restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba. Abolishing the trade embargo, however, will require congressional approval.
The move toward restoring relations between the two nations was the result of a landmark humanitarian prisoner exchange announced this week that resulted in Wednesday’s release of American contractor Alan Gross, who had been held in a Cuban prison for five years on suspicion of being a U.S. spy.
Normalizing relations with Cuba – an island nation just 90 miles off the coast of Florida – is a smart idea whose time is long past due.
Of course, Washington’s decision to cut diplomatic ties with Cuba, a nation that is estimated to be 40 -60 percent non-White, never made sense to begin with.
For years, Fidel Castro and his band of ragtag but gallant revolutionaries had fought the forces of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, an American puppet and brutal ruler said to be responsible for the deaths of more than 20,000 Cubans.
In the early days of the revolution, Castro, whose forces eventually prevailed on January 1, 1959, actually identified with America’s founding fathers and sought to build bridges with Washington.
“The revolution was about race, class and oppression,” Felix Sharpe-Caballero, a Cuban-American of African descent who immigrated to the United States when he was three and who visits Cuba four or five times a year, told me. “One of Fidel’s Castro’s first executive orders was to eliminate racism. No less than eight of my relatives on father and mother’s side who are highly rated medical professionals. These are all people who looked like you and me. In pre-Castro Cuba that would have been impossible. “
Castro was spurned by both the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations. Washington’s persistent efforts to derail the Cuban revolution and to assassinate Castro ultimately drove him into the arms of the Soviets. Cuba remained a fiercely loyal ally of Moscow until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
For this loyalty, Cuba paid a huge price economically as a result of a U.S. trade embargo. The effect of the embargo was felt even more deeply after the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main patron, went out of business. Wages shrunk, living standards plummeted and analysts predicted it was only a matter of time before the Cubans would rise up and oust Castro.
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
Meanwhile, Washington, which couldn’t handle defeat, refused to lift the embargo. It continued to lambaste the Cuban government as a communist regime that consistently violated human rights.
That didn’t make sense either.
Of the five communist countries left on the planet – Cuba, China, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam – the U.S. has diplomatic relations with three. The U.S restored full diplomatic relations with Laos in 1992 and with Vietnam under the Clinton administration. The U.S. has had a relationship with China for decades and China is one of America’s most important trading partners.
The United States also maintains strong diplomatic relations countries that consistently violate the human rights of its citizens, including Saudi Arabia, where women continue to clamor for such basic rights as voting and driving and where beheadings of criminals are not unheard of; and Gabon and Togo, where citizens are denied free and fair elections and the same families have controlled both countries for nearly half a century.
“We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result,” Obama said in a speech last week. That short sentence effectively captured the futility and madness of the Cuban trade embargo. “It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse.”
The decision to re-establish relations with Cuba will undoubtedly draw the usual battalion of critics. Indeed, on Wednesday as word spread of this bold step, supporters of the Cuban embargo vowed to fight Obama in Congress. Florida Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, a relative of Fidel Castro, said he would advocate withholding money from the U.S. State Department if Obama moves forward with his plans to open an embassy in Havana.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, also blistered Obama’s plan on Wednesday and pledged to do all he could to thwart the new policy.
“This entire policy shift announced today is based on an illusion, based on a lie,” Rubio told reporters. “The White House has conceded everything and gained little.”
Rubio, a potential presidential candidate in 2016, has been a longtime critic of the regime in Cuba and of Obama’s foreign policy – which he dubbed as “not just naive, but willfully ignorant of the way the world truly works.”
But these critics and the pack of Cuban-American exiles who for decades hijacked U.S. policy on this issue are out of step with the thinking of the rest of the world, which agrees on this much: for the first time in years, the United States is making a smart foreign policy move.
Lekan Oguntoyinbo is a national award-winning writer. Follow him on Twitter @oguntoyinbo. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.