Rocky path to a U.S.Cuba rapprochement
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.