IT was a day for the history books as the wheels of Air Force One, the aircraft carrying the American President, Señor Barack Obama, touched down in communist Cuba. Only a short while back, Pope Francis and French President Francois Holland had made the trip. Yesterday March 25, the American rock band, The Rolling Stones, played a “free” show in Havana. It seems like everyone wants a chance to see socialism one last time before it dies. Even so, was the drizzle that greeted the American President at the Jose Marti International Airport on Palm Sunday; a blessing in diplomatic disguise or an ominous sign of things to come?
Presidents Obama and Castro had met twice before: first at the Pan-American summit in Panama and again at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. On those two occasions, the body language of the two leaders seemed to suggest that the animosity between the two countries was waning – not that, amid the historic exchange on March 20, there was any brief moment of levity about the good old days of the Cold War or about Cuba’s refusal in almost half a century to cash the U.S. Treasury cheques of $4,085 per year it receives for rental of the controversial 45-square-mile Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.
Considering the rich and tortured history of U.S.-Cuba relations, the U.S. president got a surprisingly warm welcome from an island raised on revolutionary and Cold War ethos. Thus, the political noise coming from especially the Republican Party about the fact that President Obama was not personally greeted on the airport by Cuban President Raul Castro (having previously done so for other leaders), is simply “much ado about nothing”. In recent times, I can’t recall seeing the American President being greeted by Angela Merkel on the tarmac at Berlin’s Tegel Airport or by David Cameron at Stansted Airport in London – although these two nations are close political allies of the U.S. and have both enjoyed an enduring friendship with the superpower for almost three quarters of a century.
In contrast, no one needs to be reminded that there have been several decades of diplomatic tension and economic hostility between Cuba and America – having been ideological adversaries during the Cold War. Hence, Raul Castro’s failure to welcome Air Force One (One step at a time, amigo!) is perhaps a reflection of Cuba’s ultra-cautious approach to the growing political and diplomatic rapprochement between the two countries. Besides, long before the presidential visit, the White House had announced that the Cuban President wouldn’t be expected at the airport.
If anything, President Obama understands that the only way to influence events in Cuba is to actually engage the country. Ever since the economic embargo was imposed on Cuba in 1960 (almost two years after the Batista regime was deposed by the Cuban Revolution), precious little by way of political change has been achieved – except that the people of Cuba have been impoverished and unfairly disadvantaged.
George Schulz who served as Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State from 1982 to 1989, called the embargo “insane”. In the relenting heat of the Cold War, Pope John Paul II called for an end to the embargo during his 1979 pastoral visit to Mexico. In June 2009, the Cato Institute, an influential American think tank, delivered a scathing rebuke of U.S foreign policy towards Cuba: “The embargo has been a failure by every measure. It has not changed the course or nature of the Cuban government. It has not liberated a single Cuban citizen. In fact, the embargo has made the Cuban people a bit more impoverished, without making them one bit freer. At the same time, it has deprived Americans of their freedom to travel and has cost US farmers and other producers billions of dollars of potential exports”, the statement read.
If we need further proof of America’s glaring hypocrisy and double standards in international relations, the embargo against Cuba is a clear example. Successive American administrations have signed trade deals and developed full diplomatic relations with China, Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, et al – countries well known for violating human rights and oppressing political dissidents. In fact, 190 nations already engage politically and economically with Cuba, while the U.S. refuses to lift the economic embargo – a stance seen by many as a sort of Pyrrhic victory. In June 2009, Moisés Naím wrote in Newsweek: “The embargo is the perfect example used by anti-Americans everywhere to expose the hypocrisy of a superpower that punishes a small island while cozying to dictators elsewhere.”
Still, Cuba is not altogether without blame for U.S. policy which eventually led to its economic isolation. We shouldn’t forget that it was the Cuban Government that first severed ties with the U.S. in 1959. It was Cuba that first expropriated U.S firms and provoked the Cuban Crisis by agreeing to secretly station Soviet atomic missiles on the island – almost triggering a nuclear war.
At any rate, the extending of a friendly hand to Cuba at this point amounts to nothing more than U.S. enlightened self-interest, particularly as Russia and China continue to gain influence in Latin America by carving out new markets in the superpower’s so-called backyard. As for President Obama, he is surely thinking about his legacy, and would like to go down in history as the president who succeeded in ending two generations of frosty relations between the United States and Cuba.
Yet, there is not much time left for him to seal the deal, as congressional approval is required to alter or rescind the embargo. In ten months, the 45th president would have already occupied the White House, and will quite possibly show less enthusiasm than President Obama in lifting the embargo. However, history will be kind to America’s first black president for the enormous positive changes he has wrought on his nation during what many will view as a transformational presidency. By attempting to re-engage Cuba, Señor Obama has recognized the wisdom in Albert Einstein’s line that “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insanity.”
Coming Soon: Conscience of a Progressive (My New Book)
For comments, write to ClementSoulage@hotmail.de – Clement Wulf-Soulage is a Management Economist, Published Author and Former University Lecturer.