U.S.-Cuba

Cuban triumph

Print edition : January 23, 2015

President Barack Obama and Raul Castro at the memorial service for South African leader Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg on December 10, 2013. Photo: REUTERS

June 17, 1961: Fidel Castro. Revolutionary Cuba under Castro defeated the Bay of Pigs invasion which had the full backing of the U.S. administration. Photo: The New York Times

The Cuban Five, (from left), Fernando Gonzalez, Rene Gonzalez, Ramon Labanino, Antonio Guerrero and Gerardo Hernandez, during the annual session of the Cuban Parliament, on December 20, 2014, in Havana. Photo: ADALBERTO ROQUE/AFP

The United States’ offer to normalise relations and lift the economic embargo imposed in 1960 has come as a victory for Cuba, which is firm that the rapprochement will not make it renounce socialism.

THE SIMULTANEOUS ANNOUNCEMENTS by United States President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro on December 17 that relations between the two countries would be “normalised” have come in for widespread praise internationally. Even within the U.S., only a minority of right-wing politicians have criticised the Obama administration’s move to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years. The Cuban-American community in the U.S. has welcomed the move. Obama has indicated that within a month he will take steps to steadily dismantle the trade embargo that the U.S. imposed on the island nation in 1960.

Critics of the President in the Republican-dominated Senate and Congress have vowed to stall the lifting of the economic blockade. Right-wing critics are accusing the President of giving too many concessions to Cuba.

The blockade on Cuba started in 1960, in the last year of the Dwight Eisenhower administration. President Eisenhower acceded to the wishes of the State Department, which had proposed a line of action “that makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about desperation, hunger and the overthrow of the [Fidel Castro] government”. The policy was revised in the 1980s and 1990s to make the sanctions more draconian. All the same, the U.S. blockade did not achieve its stated goal but it did cause a lot of suffering to the Cuban people and had an impact on the country’s economy. Cuba estimates that its economy has lost more than $1 trillion as a result of the blockade.

Obama administration officials have said that the President will immediately use his executive powers to lift the sanctions on travel and business activities. In his statement on Cuba policy changes, Obama said that with the U.S. having established diplomatic relations with other communist countries such as China and Vietnam, it made no sense to continue with the policy on Cuba, another communist country. The decision to ease restrictions on Cuba was influenced to an extent by the Summit of the Americas scheduled to be held in Panama in April. Panama had invited the U.S. to the summit along with Cuba. Many countries in the region threatened to boycott the summit if the U.S. insisted on excluding Cuba from it. With the statement on easing of relations, Obama and Raul Castro can sit across the table at the summit, in what will be the first such meeting between the Presidents of the two countries since the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Obama and Raul Castro did briefly shake hands and greet each other during the funeral of South African leader Nelson Mandela in December 2013.

It has been evident for some months that the relations between the two countries were improving. Many U.S. Senators and Congressmen were calling on the Obama administration to ease the sanctions on Cuba. The New York Times, the voice of the U.S. East Coast Establishment, has been carrying on a campaign for the speedy normalisation of relations between the two countries. Obama had won votes from the Cuban community in Florida during his first campaign for the presidency by promising to improve relations with Havana. He did, in fact, make some changes in Washington’s Cuba policy by allowing Cuban Americans to visit their homeland more frequently and to send increased amounts of dollar remittances to relatives on the island. But he also continued with many of the hostile policies of the past, including subversion of the Cuban political system. U.S. government agencies such as USAID were used for the purpose. The U.S. spy Alan Gross was caught distributing money and computers to the minuscule minority of dissident activists on the island. The “Zunzuneo project” was another plan hatched by the agency aimed at subverting the socialist system through the auspices of social media.

It was painstaking behind-the-scenes negotiations that finally brought about a diplomatic breakthrough. Now it turns out that even the Vatican had a role to play in the final outcome. The Vatican hosted secret talks between U.S. and Cuban officials in Rome. The talks were held for 18 months in utmost secrecy. The negotiations finally revolved around the fate of the three Cubans who remained incarcerated in the U.S. and Alan Gross, serving a 12-year prison term in Cuba. When Pope Benedict, before his surprise retirement, visited Cuba in 2012, he called for the resumption of dialogue between Havana and Washington. The Pope made it a point not to meet Cuban dissidents backed by the U.S. during his visit. Pope Francis visited Cuba before he was anointed as the head of the Church in 2013. Being from Argentina, he is more conversant with the contemporary politics of the region. Both Obama and Raul Castro thanked the Pope for helping in finalising the “historic” deal.

For Cuba, the issue of the “Cuban Five” was the most important aspect of the negotiations. Two of the five Cuban patriots were released in 2013 and early 2014 after they had served lengthy prison terms. The release of the remaining three from U.S. prisons was the number one priority for the Cuban government. Without their freedom, Cuba would not have handed Alan Gross over to the U.S. authorities. The only crime of the Cuban Five was to expose the activities of Cuban American terrorist groups operating from American soil. Gerardo Hernandez, Ramon Labanino, Antonio Guerrero, Fernando Gonzalez and Rene Gonzalez had infiltrated these terrorist groups, which had been targeting Cuban cities and violating Cuban airspace with impunity. Terrorist organisations such as Alpha 66, Commandos F4 and Brothers to the Rescue operated from Florida. They were allowed a free run by U.S. security agencies. They would routinely target Cuban Americans in Florida who called for normalisation of relations. Among the notorious anti-Castro Cuban terrorists operating in Florida were Orlando Bosch and Luis Possada Carriles. They were the brains behind the bombing of a Cuban commercial airliner in 1976 that killed all 76 passengers on board.

The deal came in for effusive praise from leaders in Latin America and the Caribbean region, cutting across political lines. Pro-American leaders in the region, such as the Presidents of Mexico and Colombia, were among the first to express their happiness with the diplomatic rapprochement. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos expressed the hope that the deal would pave the way “to the dream of having a continent where there will be total peace”. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which is currently engaged in peace talks with the Colombian government, announced that it was declaring a unilateral and indefinite ceasefire. The civil war in Colombia has been going on almost uninterrupted since the early 1950s.

President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela hailed the agreement as a “historic victory for the Cuban people”. A day after his statement announcing the normalisation of relations with Cuba, Obama gave his approval for sanctions against Venezuela. Strained relations with the U.S. did not stop Maduro from congratulating Obama on his initiative to normalise relations with Cuba. “We have to recognise the gesture from Obama. A necessary and courageous gesture,” Maduro said. Venezuelan Foreign Minister Rafael Ramirez, however, highlighted the U.S.’ double standards. He pointed out the contradiction of Obama imposing sanctions on Venezuela when he had admitted that the U.S.’ prolonged sanctions against Cuba had failed to advance its interests.

“They want to sanction us because we carry the banner of socialism,” he said. Brazilian President Dilma Roussef, a guerilla fighter against the military regime of the 1970s, described the normalisation of relations between Havana and Washington as a historic development. “For us, social fighters, today is a historic day. We imagined we would never see such a moment,” she said.

The U.S. economic blockade of Cuba was deeply unpopular all over the region. The Obama administration was alarmed by the diplomatic and economic inroads made by China and Russia in a region that the U.S. once considered its backyard. Many U.S. policymakers and analysts blamed the diminishing influence on the country’s failed Cuba policy. In the last Summit of the Americas, most of the time was wasted on talking about the U.S.’ economic blockade on Cuba. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin made extensive visits to the region in 2014. When Obama stated that the U.S.’ policy towards Cuba had failed to “advance our interests” he was not talking only about its political interests.

Economic benefit

In fact, many U.S. commentators say that it is the powerful commercial lobby in the U.S. that has prompted Obama to speedily loosen the restrictions on trade with Cuba. Although the U.S. trade embargo has not ended officially, the White House has said that it will “authorise expanded sales and export of certain goods and services from the U.S. to Cuba”. Tom Vilsack, Agriculture Secretary, has said that the easing of restrictions “expands opportunities for U.S. farmers and ranchers to do business in Cuba”. American economists estimated that the U.S. would be able to sell $500 million worth of agricultural products to Cuba. The U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) said that American exports would grow from the “current level of zero to around 80-90 per cent in Cuba, as it is in other Caribbean nations”. The multinational corporation Cargill hailed Obama’s initiative by saying that there are “clear economic and social benefits” and the potential for “a new market for U.S. farmers, ranchers and food companies”.

But before relations between the two countries can truly normalise, the U.S. has to first remove Cuba from the State Department’s list of states sponsoring terrorism. Cuba was unilaterally placed on the list in 1982. Cuba’s crucial military support for the liberation movements in southern Africa had prompted that move. Because of the sanctions and counterterrorism laws, Cuba finds it difficult to access cheap credit from international financial institutions. U.S. companies will also find it difficult to do business with Cuba because of the restrictions that are still in force. Obama administration officials have said that Cuba will be out of the terror list within months.

The other issues that need to be settled quickly are those connected to migration, narcotics and the return of Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. has to scrap the “wet foot, dry foot” policy which encourages Cubans to emigrate illegally. Cubans rescued in the sea (wet foot) are allowed to take up residence in third countries while those successful in reaching U.S. shores (dry foot) are automatically given residency permits. This privilege is given only to illegal immigrants from Cuba. There is no dispute over the sovereignty over Guantanamo Bay. The 1903 treaty under which the U.S. signed a lease agreement with Cuba recognises this fact. Communist Cuba, however, does not recognise this agreement, which was signed when the island was virtually run like a colony by the U.S. Washington must also stop its openly subversive activities such as the daily propaganda broadcasts from Radio Marti and Television Marti.

Raul Castro has emphasised that the detente with the U.S. will not make Cuba waver from socialism. “We shouldn’t expect that in order for relations to improve with the United States, Cuba is renouncing the ideas for which we’ve fought for more than a century and for which our people have spilled so much blood and run such great risks,” he told Cuba’s National Assembly in the last week of December. He said Cuba was always ready “to engage in a respectful dialogue on equal terms to address any issues without a shadow over our independence and without renouncing a single one of our principles”. Raul Castro reminded the Cuban people that many of the odious aspects of the blockade still remained. “An important step has been taken, but the essential thing remains, the end of the economic, commercial and financial blockade against Cuba, which has grown in recent years, particularly in financial transactions,” he said.

After delivering his speech, he invited the Cuban Five and Elian Gonzalez to share the podium with him. In 1999, Elian, who was aged five then, was rescued from the sea and was at the centre of a bitter custody battle between his father in Cuba and relatives in Florida. His return to Cuba in 2000 was another big victory for Cuban persistence and diplomacy.

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