by Michael ParmlyIf you want to mark your calendars, put a big red circle around the date 17 December 2014. That was the day that the leaders of two inveterate enemies – the United States and Cuba – went on their respective countries’ national television to announce their intention to move towards re-establishment of diplomatic relations.
That formal step has not yet been taken – the two sides are “working on it” – but it is close to inevitable, since it is the stated intention of President Raul Castro and President Obama, and despite strong opposition from the GOP right wing, it is Obama’s constitutional prerogative to do so.
The dramatic announcement came after 18 months of secret negotiations between the two sides in Ottawa, Canada, with strong help from Pope Francis. However, the breakthrough would not have happened had it not been for the presence of both Obama and Raul Castro at the head of their respective governments. Fidel Castro, Raul’s aging but still omnipresent brother and predecessor of some 50 years at the head of the island, is widely perceived to be very “cool” to the idea of a rapprochement with the neighbor to the north; that reluctance is almost certainly shared with a sizeable contingent in the ruling Communist Party. Obama made clear as early as his 2008 campaign that he saw the U.S. policy of seeking to isolate Cuba as a failure and that it was time to try a new approach, but he faced then – and still confronts in Congress, especially in the Senate – stubborn opposition to any change in policy.
Despite that opposition in both bodies politic, both Castro and Obama have been working towards change from the time they assumed power. Raul took over from Fidel in August 2006 when the latter fell ill, and then assumed full constitutional powers in February 2008. Almost immediately he started to introduce reforms to tap the entrepreneurial talents of the 11.2 million Cubans, and to shrink the size of the previously omnipresent government sector. Most importantly to the island nation of 11.2 million, Raul lifted the requirement that Cubans get exit visas to travel abroad. In turn, President Obama was conscious of the fact that most polling data showed solid majorities in favor of a new approach with Cuba. Thus, as early as 2009 he liberalized the rules governing transmission of money to the island and travel requirements for Americans to visit the island. Travel is now authorized in 12 broad categories.
Taking advantage of one of those categories, I accompanied a group from North Carolina to Havana in November 2014 (my first return visit since I left in July 2008), and will go again later this month with a California group. The changes I saw in November were at once both slight and dramatic. Slight, in the sense of the same grinding poverty among almost all Cubans – foreign investment has been very slow in coming – and yet the irrepressible spontaneity, enthusiasm and self-pride of average Cubans is unchanged. Dramatic, in the expectations of Cubans for a different tomorrow. The Cuban Government senses those desires, and is trying, in its totalitarian ways, to stay ahead of the curve. Castro’s main hope is that President Obama will succeed in his stated intention of lifting the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. That step is still a long way off (it will require changing at least six major pieces of U.S. legislation), but step-by-step progress in overcoming over half a century of government-to-government hostility is already having a positive effect.