On December 17, U.S. president Barrack Obama and Cuban president Raúl Castro dropped a diplomatic bombshell when they announced that they would normalize diplomatic relationships between the two countries. The announcement caught almost all observers off guard. It seemed that this leftover legacy of the cold war would never disappear.
The roots of the conflict date back to the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and its leader Fidel Castro’s determination that major powers would treat the small island country as an equal. Cuba had long suffered under the imperial thumb of colonial powers, first Spain and then after 1898 the United States. The revolution definitively broke the back of imperial control.
The U.S. government did not let Cuba leave quietly and peacefully to determine its own future. Instead, the United States proceeded to engage in terrorist activities, including plotting to kill the country’s leaders, to return the island to its imperial control. Relations between the two countries rapidly deteriorated, leading to a break in diplomacy and a United States blockade of the island.
For decades, the U.S. government declared that it would refuse to normalize relations with Cuba as long as Fidel Castro was in power. When Fidel stepped down and passed power to his brother Raúl, United States officials announced that they would not normalize relations as long as a Castro was in power. When Raúl announced plans to step aside and let a new generation continue the revolution, the truth came out: the United States would only normalize relations if Cuba returned to its imperial control.
Given that history, Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba while it still embraced socialist economic policies that privileged human needs over the rights of capital was completely unexpected and truly earth shattering.
Theoretically and under international law, countries conduct diplomatic relations on a level playing field. Granting of travel visas, for example, is supposed to be reciprocal. Of course, that rarely happens in real life. Large and powerful countries act at will against other countries they consider to be their subordinates.
Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson recently traveled to Havana to negotiate a thawing of relations. She emphasized the need to assure full diplomatic access as the United States interest section is upgraded to an embassy. Ignored in most press reports was that the United States government imposes much more onerous restrictions on Cuban diplomats in the United States, including those at the United Nations, than Cuba imposed on their counterparts in Havana.
In his State of the State address, Missouri governor Jay Nixon announced plans for a trade mission to Cuba. Agro industrial giants such as ADM, Cargill, and Missouri’s own Monsanto have long desired an opening of commercial relations with Cuba so that they can prey on the country. Cuba should reciprocate with a trade mission to Missouri, perhaps to encourage the United States to develop a sustainable, organic, post-petroleum agriculture that privileges human health and needs over corporate profits. The Possibility Alliance in La Plata would be a good partner.
As part of the thawing of relations, Obama demanded the release of 53 political prisoners in Cuba. Castro should have responded with a similar demand for the release of the 100 political prisoners currently held in the United States. Most prominent are Mumia Abu Jamal who was an organizer against police abuses in African-American communities, and American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier. Both have rotted for decades in dungeons in the United States after receiving unfair trials, and likely will die there unless international diplomatic pressure forces a chance in policy. More recently, Army Private Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for leaking evidence of U.S. war crimes in Iraq, and should also be released.
The United States government presses Cuba to prioritize individual liberal liberties, including a U.S.-style electoral system. In response, Cuba should insist that the United States pay more attention to social rights, including providing universal health care to all of its residents.
Obama recognized that a fifty-year policy of regime change in Cuba never worked. Missouri senator Roy Blunt criticized Obama for changing policy on Cuba in the “waning days” of the Castro brothers. That is is the type of rhetoric that drove a failed United States policy since before the current president was born. Hopefully we are living in the waning days of politicians like Blunt, and we can now move toward a more logical, rational, and healthy foreign policy toward Cuba.
Marc Becker teaches Latin American history at Truman State University. He travels to Cuba on February 7 to document political changes in the aftermath of the normalization of relations with the United States, and will report on the trip in the next issue of The Monitor.