At a diplomatic ceremony on July 20, the flag of the Republic of Cuba was hoisted over the newly reconstituted Cuban Embassy in the United States capital.
500 dignitaries and guests observed the flag blowing in the fresh Washington winds of engagement between United States and Cuba – among them the Foreign Minister of Cuba, Bruno Rodriguez, US Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, Roberta Jacobson, and Cuba’s famous folksinger, Silvio Rodriguez.
US and Cuban relations began a long and complicated transformation from perpetual aggression to bilateral accommodation. July 20, not only marks the official reopening of normal diplomatic relations, but a new era of civil interaction and political, economic and cultural connections between two nations that have been the closest of enemies
The official restoration of relations comes 54 years after the US President Dwight Eisenhower broke ties with the Caribbean country on January 3, 1961. And six months after the US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro made their dramatic announcement that US-Cuban relations would begin the long and complicated transformation from perpetual aggression to bilateral accommodation.
Many who gathered at the Cuban embassy never believed they would live to see this day. Indeed, July 20, not only marks the official reopening of normal diplomatic relations, but a new era of civil interaction and political, economic and cultural connections between two nations that, for decades, have been the closest of enemies.
Both Presidents deserve much credit for this historical breakthrough. Although Fidel Castro secretly reached out to almost every US president to offer a “modus vivendi” with Washington, it is his quieter brother, Raul, who has actually brought that goal to fruition.
Since officially assuming the Cuban presidency in 2008, Raul has pragmatically moved to reform the Cuban economy and secure what he calls “sustainable socialism” through more normal relations with the US. The accord he has achieved with the Obama administration has brought a validation of the Cuban revolution on its own terms – after decades of standing up to imperial Goliath of the North.
For his part, President Obama came into office in 2009 pledging to “write a new chapter” in US relations with Cuba; it has taken him until the end of his presidential tenure to draft and implement a new policy.
Along the way, he has mobilised the more moderate Cuban-American community in Florida to support engagement, and faced down the dwindling group of hardliners such as Republican Senator – and presidential contender – Marco Rubio, who are demanding the continuation of an interventionist policy of regime change in Cuba.
After making history by meeting face-to-face with Raul Castro last April at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, Obama went out of his way to repudiate the long history of US intervention in Latin America, and in Cuba. “When we insert ourselves in ways that go beyond persuasion, it’s counterproductive. It backfires. That’s been part of our history…” Obama told assembled reporters. “We are not in the business of regime change.”
“The progress that we mark today is yet another demonstration that we don’t have to be imprisoned by the past,” President Obama reiterated earlier this month when he announced that the resumption of normal diplomatic relations would occur on July 20. “This is what change looks like.”
To be sure, there are Cuban officials who remain suspicious that the US has not changed its intentions. After all, “the past” is replete with infamous acts of aggression against the revolution and its leaders: the Bay of Pigs invasion, CIA assassination plots, more recent “democracy promotion” efforts conducted though the US Agency for International Development, and the continuation of the onerous US trade embargo itself.
For them, engagement is potentially a Trojan horse intended to create new and even more dangerous channels of influence to erode the Cuban revolution. “You have to appreciate the words of the president […] but you have to see what happens in practice,” said Gustavo Machin, deputy director for US affairs in the Cuban foreign ministry.
“I don’t trust the policy of the United States,” Fidel Castro noted in his only public commentary on the rapprochement between Washington and Havana. “But this does not mean I reject a pacific solution to the conflicts,” he added.
Indeed, even with an official end to the Cold War in the Caribbean, Cuba will become yet another small nation subjected to the more routine, daily, economic and cultural influences of the last remaining superpower, as well as to the imperial systems that seek to influence the futures of many societies around the globe.
But changing the entire framework of US-Cuban relations means also changing the way in which Washington acknowledges the existence, and legitimacy of the sovereign state of Cuba.
And the Obama administration shows every indication of working towards overcoming what the president calls “decades of mistrust” and taking steps “towards a new day” in US Cuban relations.
Those steps include the first official diplomatic meeting, scheduled for today, at the US State Department between a secretary of state and a Cuban foreign minister since 1958. They include John Kerry’s planned trip to Havana in August to oversee the raising of the US flag at the new US embassy.
And they also consist of plans for Barack Obama to become the first sitting president of the US to visit the island of Cuba since the 1930s. Such a trip would not only secure Obama’s foreign policy legacy, but assure that the bold policy changes he has undertaken on Cuba cannot be reversed in the future.