©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in El Perico
President Barack Obama’s announcement the U.S. is moving to normalize relations with Cuba holds promise for healing between conflicting nations that were once friends.
Since breaking diplomatic relations in 1961, the United States and Cuba have tread a cycle of acrimony and treachery. These Cold War antagonists became distant enemies despite their close proximity. In response to perceived human rights abuses, America enacted economic sanctions that blocked commerce. Cuba retaliated by jailing dissidents and expelling “undesirables.”
An American embargo cut-off a much-prized Cuban export to the U.S. – cigars (except those smuggled in) – and denied Cubans U.S. goods and investments. Cuban exiles bitter over losing land and businesses to Fidel Castro’s communist regime generally oppose U.S. concessions. However, most Cuban-Americans support the countries doing business together, says University of Nebraska at Omaha political science professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado. Neb.’s small exile community reflects the idealogical-generational divide among this population, with many younger, liberal Cubans favoring restored relations and many older, conservative Cubans resisting it.
Stalemate critics have long contended the countries share too many mutual interests to not have full relations. Benjamin-Alvarado lauded the intermediary role Pope Francis and the Vatican played in bringing the two sides together for diplomatic talks that broke the impasse.
Renewal of natural geopolitical-cultural-historic ties may signal a move past angry rhetoric and punitive policy to find conditional avenues for resuming free travel and trade. It won’t come easy, though.
“The fact is we didn’t have to become the type of enemies we were, but we have been, and so that’s going to take some work,” Benjamin-Alvarado says. “This is a clear indicator to me it’s always been possible and that it’s been a choice we’ve made as opposed to something we couldn’t avoid.”
He echoes Obama in saying this new approach is an admission that America’s policy of isolating and economically strangling Cuba failed and that Cuba’s made positive changes.
“Cuba’s changed remarkably in the last 20 years. They’ve transitioned from Fidel to Raul, they’ve reintroduced private property and the ability of individuals to serve as owners of small businesses, they’ve given people more economic independence. Does that mean they’re going to have more political freedoms and liberties? I’m not exactly sure…but the fact is change is afoot, and I think by making changes in tandem with the Cubans we’ll begin to see that happening.”
Nebraska Latino American Commission executive director Lazaro Spindola is a skeptic.
“Diplomacy will obviously have a better chance with this new approach,” says Spindola, who was born in Cuba and fled with his family in 1961 at age 9. “On the other hand, free trade is a very arbitrary definition, and all I see is free flow of American dollars to Cuba – by way of remittances or purchasing Cuban goods. As far as free travel, I see the same one-sided approach of free travel from the United States to Cuba but not from Cuba to the U.S.”
He’s willing to support restored relations “provided there is a mutual concession of benefits that favor the Cuban people,” adding, “”If the Cuban government is willing to yield some ground, I would be willing to meet halfway. Compromise is the base of democracy.”
Some view Cuba’s recent release of political prisoners as a sign it is serious about doing the right thing. Spindola cautions that regimes like Cuba’s “have a knack for softening or hardening relations with other countries depending on their political convenience.” He fears renewed trade might provide Cuba “with an injection of resources and energy that could further delay positive reforms.”
He and Benjamin-Alvarado agree renewed trade with Cuba could benefit the Neb. ag industry, though Spindola questions Cuba’s capacity to live up to its end of any deals.
What happens going forward, Benjamin-Alvarado says, “is a dance” where each side looks to the other for concessions.
“At the end of the day it’s going to have play out through Congress, The Cuban government, in order to have full normalization of relations with the United States, has to right now subject itself, unless the law changes, to certain provisions of U.S. law contained in the Helms-Burton Act. It says essentially the Castro brothers have to be out of the government, there have to be free and fair elections, there must be a free and open market economy and other requirements must be met.
“I don’t see this law being overturned anytime soon and so that will slow the process of a full normalization, but there is still a lot of room the Cubans could operate under in order to facilitate trade.”
Meanwhile, Obama may use executive action to speed things along as ambassadors lay the groundwork for more exchanges.
“The president will have the ability to kind of tailor certain interactions,” he says, “Having embassies where we can have an actual voice and opportunity to directly interact on an ongoing basis will help to establish a baseline and foundation for better relations across the board.”
Finding a new normal falls to new leadership in 2017, when Raul Castro is to step down and Obama’s elected successor takes office. Benjamin-Alvarado says whoever inherits this reunification needs to proceed in a fair and bilateral way.
“It’s going to take a lot more for them to trust us. I mean, we’ve been trying to screw them for the last 54 years and now all of a sudden we’re friends. I think that trust is a combination of confidence and reliability. But it will take time. They have to have confidence in us we’re going to be an honest broker with them, that just as they’re going to be transparent we’re going to be transparent, and that we’re going to be above board and open in our objectives and not try to undermine and engage in subterfuge as we have.
“It has to be an organic process generated by both sides so there isn’t one dictating to the other. It’s going to have to be a measured, step-by-step process that allows both sides to become comfortable with how they function and operate and to develop confidence over time.”
Benjamin-Alvarado, who’s traveled extensively in Cuba and plans going again in the spring, says he will measure progress “by the extent to which the Cubans begin engaging formal U.S. government bodies like the Department of Commerce and the Department of State,” adding, “It’s going to depend on how do we get each other on board and accustomed to how each of us does business, not only in terms of actual trade, but the areas in which we begin to relate to one another as regional partners and neighbors.”
Sports fans like Benjamin-Alvarado also can’t help but wonder what thawed relations might mean for the deep pool of baseball, boxing and track talent in Cuba, many of whose best athletes have defected.