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@ carthage.edu.