The historic Dec. 17 announcement by President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro to reestablish diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba and begin the process toward full normalization of relations, was greeted with excitement across the Americas and around the world.
Having just returned from a brief visit to Cuba, it’s clear the Cuban people share the jubilation and a sense of optimism that resuming relations will change their lives for the better. But the announcement was also tempered by a sober recognition that this is just the beginning of a long, difficult process.
The agreement, including release of the remaining Cuban 5 prisoners, would not have been possible without the heroic resistance of the Cuban people to U.S. efforts to destroy their revolution. This includes the 56-year-old economic blockade whose purpose was to isolate and economically strangle Cuba. This was especially so following the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, a time of desperate shortages known as the “special period.”
Nor would this moment have been possible without global solidarity with the Cuban people, especially the peoples and governments of South and Central America and the Caribbean who insisted unanimously that Cuba’s exclusion from the Organization of American States be ended. The solidarity extends to thousands of U.S. citizens who fought the blockade, and openly defied the travel ban for decades.
And finally, it wouldn’t have been possible without the courageous action of President Obama, who made the bold announcement in the wake of the 2014 election defeats when the GOP and right wing strengthened their hold on Congress. Once again it underscores, that elections and who is elected, have consequences.
By seeking normalization, U.S. ruling circles are acknowledging the current policy failed in its mission to overthrow the Cuban government. They realized it was an obstacle to gaining access to Cuban markets, putting them at a competitive disadvantage to global rivals. It was also an obstacle to their strategic plans for reasserting economic domination over South America, who have strengthened trade relations with China and other Asian countries. The U.S. was becoming increasingly isolated throughout the hemisphere.
President Obama’s action coincided with a broad shift in U.S. public opinion including among Cuban Americans to change policy. In a Washington Post – ABC poll in December shortly after President Obama’s announcement, 64 percent of Americans supported reestablishing relations with Cuba and 68 percent supported ending the blockade.
Support for change has grown across the political spectrum. 57 percent of Republicans support opening trade between the U.S. and Cuba, and 64 percent support ending restrictions on travel. But only 49 percent support reestablishing diplomatic relations.
The reestablishment of diplomatic relations is only a start. The process to fully normalize relations and engage in cooperation on a broad range of issues will be longer and more complex, fraught with potential for stalemate and setback. At each point in the process there are major challenges to overcome: taking Cuba off the state sponsored terror list, establishment and funding of embassies, ending travel and trade restrictions, closing the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, etc.
In the end, guaranteeing normalization rests on the American people. It requires heightened mobilization to counter Republican Party leadership and an ultra right determined to block every step forward. It means greater involvement in the political, legislative and electoral arenas.
Even though the blockade of Cuba, which has been in existence since 1962, is codified in law, President Obama has broad authority through executive action to modify the vast majority of provisions known as licensing procedures that make up the lion’s share of the blockade. His actions can essentially hollow out much of the blockade including restrictions on commerce, services and transportation. He has already taken action to alter licensing procedures in travel, remittances, some commercial operations and transactions.
President Obama even has authority to implement the Cuban Adjustment Act governing immigration, in a discretionary manner.
But full normalization of relations including the right of American citizens to travel freely to Cuba and to allow Cuba to buy U.S. agricultural goods on credit or from foreign subsidiaries of US corporations requires legislative action. The Helms-Burton Law and Torricelli Act must be repealed. Such action will be obstructed by the current Republican right-wing Congress and underscores the importance of electing a president and Congress in the 2016 elections that will continue the process.
A Republican victory in the presidency and Congress will either make the process harder, scuttle it all together or even lead to heightened tensions, renewed threats of military intervention and overthrow. So far every Republican presidential candidate is hostile to the agreement. Hillary Clinton, who is expected to announce her candidacy soon, is seen continuing the process of normalization if elected.
Other factors could affect the process including Obama administration policy in South and Central America and what appear efforts to destabilize progressive and socialist oriented governments including Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil. This reflects a broader strategic policy of reversing the independent economic integration of South and Central America and the Caribbean.
However, there are also tremendous new possibilities to build a broad and diverse alliance for normalization including a significant section of the corporate ruling class, most of the Democratic Party, a section of Republicans, and ordinary Americans, including the labor movement, farmers, people of faith, academics, students, cultural workers and others who want peace and good neighborly relations, and who want to travel, vacation, study, make music, and do business in Cuba.
There are some who fear the normalization process endangers Cuban socialism and is even a “sellout” of the revolution. But this is strange logic and faulty from a number perspectives.
First, such a view has no real appreciation of the damaging effects of the blockade on the social and economic life of the Cuban people. Economic development and improved living standards in Cuba depends on foreign investment and trade.
Secondly, it shows ignorance about how deeply the roots of the revolution have grown, its consolidation and the dynamic process of updating the social and economic model of socialism currently underway. The Cuban people, who have been through far more difficult challenges, are not about to give that up.
President Castro has repeatedly stated that one of the conditions for a successful normalization is respect by the U.S. for the sovereignty of the Cuban people and their right to choose their own path of economic and social development. This is also a warning against efforts to destabilize, infiltrate and influence the political process.
Those who care deeply about peace and friendship between peoples, sovereign rights of nations and the democratic rights of the U.S. people to travel should be part of every key battle ahead. It means enlarging and broadening the movement, shifting public opinion further, encouraging people to people, economic, and cultural exchanges and cooperation of the broadest nature.
Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP