Cuba’s en­dur­ing chal­lenge to US for­eign pol­icy and pol­i­tics


“You know, next time you’re go­ing to have to do bet­ter, Mr. Pres­i­dent.”

That was for­mer Pres­i­dent Dwight D. Eisen­hower, talk­ing with suc­ces­sor John F. Kennedy about the dev­as­tat­ing failed in­va­sion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in early 1961. JFK had reached out for po­lit­i­cal cover, and also in­sight re­gard­ing the mil­i­tary de­feat and diplo­matic dis­as­ter at the start of his ad­min­is­tra­tion.

The cur­rent news about Cuba and U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama is con­sid­er­ably more pos­i­tive. On April 11, he met with Cuba’s Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro. Their con­ver­sa­tion in Panama City, Panama, dur­ing the Sum­mit of the Amer­i­cas, may prove of his­toric im­por­tance.

For the first time since the Cas­tro dic­ta­tor­ship took power in early 1959, heads of the two gov­ern­ments en­gaged in a di­rect face-to-face meet­ing. At the end of the his­toric meet­ing, the two men shook hands.

The sum­mits have been held ev­ery three to four years since 1994, when the first was held in Miami, Florida dur­ing the Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion. The Soviet Union had dis­in­te­grated, satel­lite regimes of Eastern Europe had col­lapsed, and China had an­nounced cap­i­tal­ist re­forms.

Cuba was ex­cluded from pre­vi­ous sum­mits. One byprod­uct of the meet­ings was to un­der­score the iso­la­tion of the sur­viv­ing but eco­nom­i­cally strug­gling com­mu­nist dic­ta­tor­ship. How­ever, in re­cent years Latin Amer­i­can gov­ern­ments have pressed for in­clu­sion.

The ear­lier Sum­mit of the Amer­i­cas, held in 2012 in Carta­gena, Colom­bia, ini­ti­ated the open­ing to Cuba. All the par­tic­i­pat­ing heads of gov­ern­ment of Latin Amer­ica and the Caribbean voted to in­vite Ha­vana. Canada as well as the United States voted against the pro­posal but were iso­lated. Obama’s ef­forts at rap­proche­ment re­flect this evolv­ing po­lit­i­cal re­al­ity, which com­ple­ments his own pol­icy pref­er­ences.

Pres­i­dent Raul Cas­tro un­der­stand­ably gen­er­ated con­sid­er­able at­ten­tion from the me­dia as well as del­e­gates. He ig­nored the re­quest of con­fer­ence or­ga­niz­ers that speak­ers keep to rel­a­tively brief re­marks, and spoke for nearly an hour. This re­called his pre­de­ces­sor and brother Fidel Cas­tro’s propen­sity for ex­cep­tion­ally lengthy ora­tions.

Pres­i­dent Cas­tro made news in Fe­bru­ary 2013 by an­nounc­ing that he will re­tire from that of­fice in 2018. Brother Fidel stepped down from the same post in 2008, af­ter turn­ing 85 years of age.

Likely suc­ces­sor Miguel Diaz-Canel Ber­mudez is a loyal mid­dle-aged func­tionary with a rep­u­ta­tion for bland bu­reau­cratic ef­fec­tive­ness. If iron con­trol by the Broth­ers Cas­tro does end, there may be op­por­tu­ni­ties for greater re­form. The growth of democ­racy through­out the Amer­i­cas sets the stage.

Fidel Cas­tro greatly es­ca­lated Cold War ten­sions by al­liance with the Soviet Union soon af­ter tak­ing power. In 1960, he joined Soviet Pre­mier Nikita Khrushchev in a rau­cous visit to the U.N. in New York, punc­tu­ated by Khrushchev pound­ing a shoe on a desk. JFK made Cuba a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign pri­or­ity in the same year.

Cuba has been a hot but­ton in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics ever since. Repub­li­can Se­na­tor Marco Ru­bio, from Florida with a Cuban her­itage, is a strong critic of the Cuba ini­tia­tive. On April 13, he for­mally de­clared as a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date.

His­tory re­mains in­struc­tive. JFK re­cov­ered from the Bay of Pigs through suc­cess­ful man­age­ment of the ex­cep­tion­ally danger­ous Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis. The re­sult­ing nu­clear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union won Se­nate pas­sage by a bi­par­ti­san 80-19.

Obama still has time to launch ef­fec­tive, sus­tained ef­forts at bi­par­ti­san co­op­er­a­tion with Congress. The Repub­li­can ma­jori­ties in both houses make that es­sen­tial for suc­cess. Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor at Carthage Col­lege in Wis­con­sin and au­thor of ‘Af­ter the Cold War.’ He can be reached at acyr@

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