Castro, Obama Announce Normalization of Ties

The American and Cuban presidents call for an end to half a century of hostility.

American president Barack Obama speaks with his Cuban counterpart, Raúl Castro, by phone from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, December 16
American president Barack Obama speaks with his Cuban counterpart, Raúl Castro, by phone from the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, December 16 (White House/Pete Souza)

Presidents Raúl Castro of Cuba and Barack Obama of the United States announced an historic shift in the countries’ relationship on Wednesday that could end more than half a century of hostility.

In speeches that were broadcast simultaneously, the two leaders said they would reestablish diplomatic relations that were severed in 1961 when communists took over the island nation.

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests,” Obama said in remarks from the White House.

Neither the American nor the Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.

The changes will mean a relaxation of commerce and transportation between Cuba and the United States but the lifting of a longstanding trade embargo requires congressional approval.

Obama argued that the American policy of isolation had failed, saying he did not believe “we can continue to do the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result. It does not serve American interests or the Cuban people to try to push Cuba toward collapse.”

The trade embargo has hardly pushed Cuba toward collapse but it is a narrative that “suits the regime of Fidel and Raul Castro, writes Bobby Ghosh at Quartz, “because it gives the grim brothers a ready excuse for their inability to give their subjects decent economic opportunities.”

Raúl took over from his older president as president in 2008.

Cuba already trades with many countries, including American allies in Europe, and receives nearly three million tourists per year. Greater openness to the world is unlikely to be of huge economic benefit to a country that is primarily held back by socialist economic policies.

The American Interest‘s Walter Russell Mead agrees the standoff with Cuba “serves no real American interest” and that the embargo does more to protect the regime in Havana than it does the United States.

Fidel and Raúl have never wanted a total end to the embargo; they have understood for decades that the embargo acts to protect their socialist experiment.

If the embargo is lifted, they could either accept a likely influx of Cubans from Florida, “swamping its underdeveloped and scrawny local economy with gringo dollars and influence,” or it would have to enact tighter regulations to keep Cuban Americans and their money out — which would make it “crystal clear to every Cuban citizen that the Cuban government needs to keep the island isolated and poor in order to protect its grip on power.”

For now, neither option is likely because opposition Republicans in the United States, whose support would be needed to lift the embargo, are critical.

“It’s part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants that this administration has established,” Florida senator Marco Rubio, a potential presidential candidate, told Fox News on Wednesday.

He added, “This notion that somehow being able to travel more to Cuba, to sell more consumer products, the idea that’s going to lead to some democratic opening is absurd.”

Congressman Mario Díaz-Balart, a Cuban American Republican from Florida like Rubio, accused the president of allowing the Castro regime “to blackmail the United States.” In a statement, he said, “These changes to policy will further embolden the Cuban dictatorship to continue brutalizing and oppressing its own people as well as other anti-American dictatorship and terrorist organizations.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, a leading foreign-policy voice in the Republican Party, vowed, “I will do all in my power to block the use of funds to open an embassy in Cuba. Normalizing relations with Cuba is bad idea at a bad time.”

The rapprochement came after more than a year of private talks between American and Cuban officials who held a majority of their meetings in Canada.

The United States originally isolated Cuba after Fidel Castro led a revolution against the island’s American-allied dictator, Fulgencio Batista, in the late 1950s. He subsequently allied with the Soviet Union, America’s nemesis in the Cold War, leading to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis when the Soviets first deployed and then withdrew ballistic missiles from the island.

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