At noon on Wednesday, Dec. 17, church bells began to ring all over Cuba.
At that hour, President Barack Obama of the United States and President Raul Castro Ruz of Cuba simultaneously announced a breathtakingly radical agreement to change the relationship between the two countries, which have been in the deep freeze since the victory of the Cuban Revolution on January 1, 1959.
A significant feature of the new agreement was the decision by the United States to release the three remaining members of the Cuban Five, a group of Cuban undercover agents who were arrested 16 years ago for carrying out surveillance of potentially violent right-wing Cuban exile groups in South Florida. Two of the five, Rene Gonzalez and Fernando Gonzalez, were freed after serving out their terms. The three remaining members of the Five, Gerardo Hernandez, Antonio Guerrero and Ramon Labañino, have now been freed. The case of Gerardo Hernandez was especially dire as he was serving life terms on trumped up murder charges.
As a humanitarian exchange, Cuba has now freed former USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who has served five years in a Cuban prison after having been convicted of violating Cuban law by smuggling in sophisticated, prohibited surveillance avoidance equipment under the guise of visiting Cuba as a tourist. Arriving on U.S. soil looking fit and happy, Gross called for work toward the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations. The Cuban government has been suggesting for several years that a humanitarian exchange of Gross for the Cuban Five be carried out.
Gross’ family came to also support the idea of such an exchange. Evidently a factor in tipping the scale in favor of the exchange was that Cuba agreed to free unnamed other prisoners, also, including a Cuban national serving 20 years in a Cuban prison for spying for the United States. President Obama called this individual “one of the most valuable intelligence agents” the United States has had in Cuba. CNN reports that the unnamed agent played a role in the arrest of the Cuban Five and of three other U.S. government workers accused and convicted of spying for Cuban: Ana Belen Montes, Walter Kendell Myers and Myers’ wife Gwendolyn.
But the coordinated speeches of the two presidents went far, far beyond the agreement about the exchange of prisoners. It is clear that President Obama is now aiming for a radical reworking of Cuban-U.S. relations. Paraphrasing Einstein’s definition of madness, he said “I do not think we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect different results.”
The far reaching changes that will take place immediately or after some study include:
* Making it much easier for U.S. citizens to visit Cuba, spend money there, and use U.S. credit and debit cards while in Cuba. The categories of persons allowed by the United States to travel to Cuba will be expanded to include new groups.
* Establishment of full diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. Currently, there is only a low level diplomatic presence of the United States in Cuba and Cuba in the United States, called the U.S. and Cuban “Interests Sections” and not “embassies.” The top diplomats are officially called “chief of the Interests Section” instead of “Ambassador.”
* Removal of Cuba from the U.S. government’s list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” Again, this is supposed to happen after “review” by the U.S. State Department, but it is improbable that it would have been announced if it were not pretty much decided.
* Cuban-Americans will now be able to send up to $2,000 to relatives in Cuba, instead of $500 as heretofore.
* It will be easier for businesses, U.S. and foreign, to trade with Cuba. The U.S. will stop blocking the importation of certain kinds of communications equipment, including computer hardware and software, to Cuba, making it possible for many more people in Cuba to have improved internet access. Blocks to certain banking transactions will be eased.
In his own speech, President Castro stated “I wish to thank and acknowledge the support of the Vatican, most particularly the support of Pope Francis, in the efforts for improving relations between Cuba and the United States, and …the government of Canada for facilitating the high level dialogue between the two countries.
The Cuban president also expressed thanks to the Cuban people for its steadfastness and to the enormous international movement consisting of “hundreds of solidarity committees and groups, governments, parliaments, organizations, institutions and personalities, who for the last 16 years have made tireless efforts demanding their release [i.e. of the Cuban 5]. We convey our deepest gratitude and commitment to all of them”.
Besides the Pope, the freedom of the Five has indeed been the focus of a worldwide campaign of a scale not seen since the trial and execution of the Rosenbergs. In the United States, numerous organizations, including labor unions and churches, and individuals have been active in pushing for the freedom of the five prisoners. Every year, the United Nations General Assembly has voted by near unanimity to call for the end of the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba.
No doubt the two governments expected that the Republican Party and the right wing Cuban exile lobby would deplore the action, and they did not have to wait long. Senator Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who will become Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when the Republicans take over the Senate next month, said that Obama has given Cuba everything it wanted in exchange for “nothing” and accused the president of being the “worst negotiator” at least since Jimmy Carter. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtenin, R-Fla., former chair of the House Foreign Relations Committee called the president’s action “immoral and illegal,” and, like Rubio, promised congressional action to stop it. Jeb Bush, who has just announced he will run for president in 2016, also denounced the President’s action. Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he would work to block funds for establishing a U.S. embassy in Havana. House speaker John Boehner also denounced the president’s move.
But there was plenty of support for the President’s action. Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said “we have had an embargo for 55 years. It is counterproductive. It is time we normalize relations.” Most Democratic party leaders asked about the issue agreed with the President’s action. Former Senator Jim Webb, D-Va., who has also been mentioned as a presidential hopeful, tweeted his support. The only major Democrat to pan the announcement was Senator Bob Menendez, D-N.J. who denounced the trade of the Cubans for Mr. Gross. Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who accompanied Mr. Gross on his return to the United States yesterday, said “our policies, frozen in time, have disserved the nation and have failed utterly and abysmally in achieving their original goals.”
Initial worldwide reaction is overwhelmingly positive.
Photo: President Obama announces restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba after 50-year break. Doug Mills/AP