Rocky path to a U.S.Cuba rap­proche­ment

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - BY PETER MCKENNA GUEST OPIN­ION Peter McKenna is pro­fes­sor and chair of po­lit­i­cal science at the Univer­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land and the co-au­thor of Canada-Cuba Re­la­tions: The Other Good Neigh­bour Pol­icy.

The last time that the United States and Cuba had of­fi­cial diplo­matic re­la­tions, Pres­i­dent Dwight Eisen­hower was in the Oval Of­fice, crooner Elvis Pres­ley was on the top of the pop charts, and a new dance, the “Twist,” was all the rage in Amer­ica. Fast for­ward 54 years and it’s fair to say that much has changed.

A week ago, the Cuban In­ter­ests Sec­tion in Washington be­came a full-blown em­bassy with a chargé d’af­faires. And at the U.S. State Depart­ment lobby atrium, the Cuban flag was qui­etly rein­serted be­tween Croa­tia and Cyprus.

In Ha­vana, the U.S. In­ter­ests Sec­tion mor­phed into an em­bassy and promptly took over its diplo­matic re­spon­si­bil­i­ties from the Swiss gov­ern­ment. The nam­ing of a chargé d’af­faires and the rais­ing of the U.S. flag out­side the build­ing will take place at an of­fi­cial cer­e­mony in early Au­gust at­tended by U.S. Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry.

This is cer­tainly an im­por­tant open­ing in the first chap­ter on nor­mal­iz­ing the U.S.-Cuban re­la­tion­ship. But a good deal of work still re­mains to be done. And a long history of mu­tual en­mity and mis­trust can­not be easily washed away.

But Cuban Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro, in speak­ing be­fore the Na­tional Assem­bly in Ha­vana last week, pointed out that Cuba wants to move for­ward in bi­lat­eral re­la­tions and is “con­vinced that both coun­tries can co­op­er­ate and co­ex­ist in a civ­i­lized way, in mu­tual ben­e­fit, de­spite the dif­fer­ences we have and will have.” He went on to add: “A new stage will be­gin, long and com­plex, on the road to­ward nor­mal­iza­tion, which will re­quire the will to find so­lu­tions to prob­lems that have ac­cu­mu­lated over more than five decades and hurt ties be­tween our na­tions and peo­ples.”

The U.S. is ob­vi­ously look­ing to see ma­jor po­lit­i­cal re­forms in Cuba in­tro­duced and an even­tual demo­cratic open­ing take place. But as Raul Cas­tro in­ti­mated in his re­marks to the Cuban Na­tional Assem­bly, Washington shouldn’t hold its breath wait­ing for that change. “Chang­ing ev­ery­thing that must be changed is the sov­er­eign and ex­clu­sive busi­ness of Cubans,” he said firmly.

The Cuban list of de­mands is not with­out its con­tro­ver­sies as well. There will be con­sid­er­able push-back from the U.S. Congress to wind down the “illegal” oper­a­tions of TV and Ra­dio Martí. And the Obama Ad­min­is­tra­tion has sig­nalled thus far that it is not pre­pared to elim­i­nate pro­grams in­side Cuba that are, in the words of Raul Cas­tro, aimed at pro­mot­ing “sub­ver­sion and desta­bi­liza­tion” in the coun­try.

More sub­stan­tively, find­ing a way around the Guan­tanamo Naval fa­cil­ity won’t be easy. And get­ting the U.S. to com­pen­sate Cuba for eco­nomic dam­ages caused by the U.S. block­ade and other acts of war­fare (ex­ceed­ing, some say, one tril­lion dol­lars) is another tough nut to crack.

More­over, Raul Cas­tro has made it very clear to U.S. of­fi­cials that there will be no rap­proche­ment be­tween the two un­less the U.S. eco­nomic block­ade is re­moved. Yet the re­moval of the em­bargo would re­quire an Act of Congress and an agree­ment, in prin­ci­ple, that the Cuban gov­ern­ment would com­pen­sate the United States for prop­er­ties con­fis­cated and ex­pro­pri­ated in the early 1960s (to­talling in the bil­lions of dol­lars).

These are very sig­nif­i­cant im­ped­i­ments in the way of any for­mal rap­proche­ment. They will cer­tainly take years to work out—and may never be fully re­solved. In­deed, pol­i­tics in both Washington and Ha­vana have had a way of tor­pe­do­ing past ef­forts to im­prove re­la­tions be­tween the two.

With a Repub­li­can-con­trolled Congress and a slate of anti-Cuba Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls, it’s hard to see how the U.S. em­bargo will be re­scinded in the short term. And one should not over­look the fact that there are do­mes­tic op­po­nents within Cuba to any nor­mal­iza­tion of re­la­tions with Washington.

In the mean­time, though, the world should celebrate this im­por­tant diplo­matic break­through, hope for the best go­ing for­ward, and pre­pare it­self for a very chal­leng­ing road ahead.


A U.S. and a Cuban na­tional flag hang from a bal­cony to mark the re­stored full diplo­matic re­la­tions be­tween Cuba and the Unites States, in Old Ha­vana.

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