The Republicans may be in a snit about President Obama’s initiative on Cuba, but polls show that 55-60 percent of Americans favor his efforts to create a new beginning in our relationship. And that makes sense. But normalization won’t happen quickly.
Since 2009, scholars in both countries have been exploring ways to normalize relations. Some call it academic diplomacy. The process has yielded white papers and recommendations, despite the difficulty Cuban scholars have often had in getting visas for U.S.-based conferences.
It seems that the biggest obstacle to success is trust. Some of the distrust is rooted in history (the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban missile crisis, the Soviet presence, Cuba’s embrace of the Palestinian cause and anti-Israel posture, Cuba’s exporting soldiers to Angola and involvement in Latin Americans revolutions, its restrictions on journalists and treatment of political prisoners.) For most of the generation in their ’40’s and ’50’s, on both sides, these are dim memories and relics of the Cold War. Yet for more than half a century, we have been mired in the rhetoric of the past. What President Obama did on December 17, 2014 was to change the tone.
Cubans with whom we spoke received that rhetorical change well and look forward to next steps. Some are fearful about a rapid expansion of global tourism, especially from the United States. They’re afraid of losing important aspects of their Cuban distinctiveness, and in fact the tourism infrastructure is far from being ready for prime time.
Others, we were told, are wary of opening up the relationship if that just cloaks the U.S. intent to undermine the Cuban government. From Cuba’s perspective, there’s an asymmetry, the world’s most powerful nation vis-à-vis its small island neighbor (about the size of Arkansas). Will the U.S. really allow Cuba to be totally independent? The expression they use is, “big countries do what they want; small countries do what they must.”
Rather than expecting normalization all at once, both sides have been suggesting potential areas for collaboration, some already underway such as drug interdiction and the environment. Cuban and U.S. marine biologists have been collaborating on studies of sea turtles and other ecological projects. More collaboration is possible regarding international terrorism and oil and gas exploration. Such confidence-building measures should lay the groundwork for tackling the more contentious issues like eliminating the embargo (favored by a 2011 vote of the United Nations General Assembly by 187 to 2). removing Cuba from a list of terrorist states, improving Cuba’s record of democracy and human rights, press freedom, the status of Guantanamo, moving to a free market economy and rationalizing immigration.
One immigration issue was a sleeper for me. The Cuban Adjustment Act, passed under Lyndon Johnson in 1966, has given preferential treatment to Cubans entering in the United States and living here for a year. (It has also been used by Mexican smugglers to bring illegals from elsewhere in Latin America, claiming they are Cubans and getting them legal status.) The law continues to one of the obstacles to better relations between the two countries.
There’s forward movement toward at least one goal of the United States. Cuba is updating its economic model. Under Raul Castro, it is opening up to market forces and anticipates that, within the next few years, 45 percent of the labor force will be in small and medium-sized private enterprises. A significant step would be to make the dual-currency economy into a single currency system, something the Cubans can do on their own.
The first vice president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, is considered a likely successor to the Castro brothers. He is an engineer and, according to an esteemed professor who addressed our group, said to be pragmatic and seeking a prosperous, efficient and sustainable economy. He hadn’t been born at the time of the revolution.
Thought leaders in Cuba see the nation moving to become more democratic, decentralized, autonomous and just. They say that, despite the asymmetry, both countries are exceptional. Both are prideful and must have mutual respect based on what each has achieved.
As one professor said, Cuba is not the paradise that its government sometimes implies, nor is it the hell frequently portrayed by Cubans living in Florida. It’s complex, as is the relationship between the two countries. But there’s much to be gained by each in moving, if not speedily then at least deliberatively, toward a relationship of respect, collaboration and, above all, neighborliness.
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