No US president ever said what President Obama told the American people on December 17, 2014. He also spoke to the people of Cuba, the ordinary citizens who struggle to make breakfast, lunch, and dinner for their families, the ones who say “No es fácil,” it isn’t easy.
“Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future – for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world.”
The goal of American policy, Obama said, is the normalization of relations with the Cuban government for the sake of Cuban people.
Since the 1970s, I’ve supported lifting the embargo even if the United States and Cuba have never had normal relations. I’m a Cuban American who came to this country as a pre-adolescent in 1960. To this day, I’m cubana. Watching President Obama’s address, I could not but feel a knot in my throat.
Over more than five decades, other presidents had made efforts to improve relations. Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter are cases in point. In 1981, Ronald Reagan sent Alexander Haig to meet with Carlos Rafael Rodríguez – then a powerful Cuban official – in Mexico City to discuss Central America. In the 1990’s, Bill Clinton moved slowly towards a rapprochement. At first, George W. Bush maintained Clinton’s policies. Before the 2004 election, Bush tightened travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban Americans and banned travel by undergraduate students.
While domestic politics sometimes preempted normalization, Havana also threw a wrench in the works. In 1996, for example, Cuban MiGs downed two Cessna planes over international waters in the Florida Straits. Three Cuban-Americans and a US resident lost their lives. Afterwards, President Clinton signed the toughest possible version of Helms-Burton, a law that codified the embargo. The White House had hoped to remove the clauses on extraterritoriality, that is,non-US companies and executives not abiding by the embargo would be penalized but the shootdown rendered the effort moot.
It’s a two way street
Relations between a great power and its weaker neighbors are never easy. The United States came of imperial age in the early 20th century. Mexico, Cuba, and others in the Caribbean Basin faced a neighbor to the North bent on exercising unchallenged hegemony. Though diplomatic relations existed with all countries in the region, relations weren’t normal in the sense that Washington did not acknowledge the interests of Mexico, Cuba, and the other countries.
It was only after 1940, for example, that the United States and Mexico normalized relations when both countries found ground in common. Over decades, the two governments learned to recognize each other’s interests. In the late 1940’s, under Cuba’s last democratically elected president, Washington and Havana took baby steps in the right direction. Havana pursued its economic interests, and Washington —often begrudgingly— accepted Cuba’s new assertiveness. In the 1950’s, Fulgencio Batista’s coup and the revolution derailed a fledgling normalization that required more than diplomatic relations.
Cuba, in short, also bears responsibility for the last 56 years. With the Obama-Raúl Castro breakthrough, I hope Havana understands that normalization is a two-way street. US policy, no doubt, has taken a toll on the Cuban people. Still, the government’s own economic policies bear more than their share of blame for the penury of so many of its citizens.
Most Cubans on the island are rightfully elated by Obama’s address. Cuban Americans in Miami have mixed feelings. For many older folks, the past looms large, that is, the deep-seated emotional loss for lives not lived in Cuba. Younger Cubans – either born in the United States or more recent arrivals – favor ending the embargo and restoring diplomatic relations.
Cuban Americans, moreover, are trending Democratic. In 2008, Obama received 35 percent of their votes. In 2012, 51 percent voted for the president. In 2014, even Charlie Crist mustered a majority in his failed attempt to regain the governorship.
Will there ever be a democratic Cuba
Nonetheless, Cuban Americans, whether for the embargo or for the new policy, long for a democratic Cuba, one which respects the rights of citizens to elect their leaders, to oppose the government, and to have their voices heard in public without being muzzled or beaten.
We don’t know yet how effective the White House’s overture will be in prompting Havana to ease repression. We’ll have to wait and see what Cuba means by freer internet access. Let’s hope that the government gives the International Red Cross and UN organizations entry to prisons and freedom to monitor human rights.
Might the National Assembly finally ratify two international pacts on Civil and Political Rights, and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights that Raúl Castro signed in 2008? Would the government then refrain from meting out beatings to Cubans who publicly commemorate Human Rights Day on December 10, 2015?
In April 2015, the Summit of the Americas, sponsored by the Organization of American States, will meet in Panama and Cuba will participate. The White House is right to expect that the Western Hemisphere address Havana’s violation of human rights. Yet, change is hard, and Latin American leaders may need more time to craft a template to deal with Cuba on the subject of human rights.