The United States and Cuba have exchanged high-level diplomatic overtures for the first time in decades. Although both countries’ highest officials are publicly delivering the ‘warmest’ words exchanged with each other in two generations, concrete steps have yet to follow, and no plan for furthering the thaw has yet emerged.
This past week, President Obama lessened American restrictions on freedom of travel and remittances to Cuba. The move was not unexpected as Obama basically reversed the stricter measures imposed by his predecessor, George W. Bush, returning U.S.-Cuba relations to the levels previously experienced during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Obama himself referred to his announcement as a “gesture of good faith”, before promptly insisting his counterpart, Cuban President Raul Castro, reciprocate.
Castro did, in fact, reciprocate – in words. Merely hours later, Castro announced that his country was willing to open negotiations with the United States, including discussions on “human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners — everything”. The remark is significant for two reasons: first, it is an admission that Cuba’s record of human, civil and political rights is now open to debate, whereas the previous official Cuban stance has simply been to deny any such discussions on these issues; and, second, it is an admission that Cuba will entertain debating such issues with the United States after decades of refusing to do so because of what they perceive to be America’s dismal record on the exact same issues.
That statement prompted the General-Secretary of the Organization of American States (OAS), Jose Miguel, to publicly announce that he would request the 34-member group to annul the 1962 resolution expelling Cuba – a new position that could not have been forwarded without official American approval. That overture was promptly followed by another by Secretary-of-State Hillary Clinton officially welcoming Castro’s remarks and indicating her State Department seriously considering the next American response.
Although Cuba has sought for years to normalize the one-sided relationship with the U.S., the Obama administration’s response, however, was not possible until the April 9, 2009 ‘White Paper’ produced by the influential Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) which officially reversed its own policy and called for an end to American isolationist policies by lifting certain American travel and remittances restrictions. CANF, founded by an ex-insurgent Cuban exile who had personally participated in the American-led Bay of Pigs failed invasion of Cuba, is the most influential Cuban lobby in Washington, and has been fiercely anti-Castro since its inception.
CANF’s reversal of policy, however, has less to do with change of heart than with change of political winds: Cubans in Florida, once the hotspot of an anti-Castro Cuban exile community, now support a thawing of relations with Cuba. This important group has traditionally wielded disproportionate power in Washington because its concentration in the Miami area has allowed it to decide Florida’s 27 electoral votes, 4th-highest in the U.S. electoral college. Thus, both U.S. political parties have had to accede to the political demands of this highly-influential and highly politicized voting bloc which, until recently, succeeded in demanding from Washington tough, anti-democratic isolationist policies directed against Cuba.
However, since this group has now decisively moved towards supporting an anti-isolationist policy with Cuba (a shift that actually began in the 1990s), and since Obama won Florida without pandering to the anti-Castro lobby, the winds of political change were evident – and CANF responded by endorsing a less isolationist policy in its ‘White Paper’, the exact endorsement adopted by Obama merely a week later.
If Obama is serious, the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, requiring Congress, as opposed to presidential excutive order or directive, to lift the anti-Cuban trade embargo, ought to be easily bypassed by the current Democrat-controlled Congress.
Yet, we will have to wait and see if the Obama administration really can bury this relic of the Cold War, or if generational inertia will be prohibitive.