Like a lot of idealistic U.S. presidents, Barack Obama took office in 2009 hoping to establish better dialogue with communist Cuba. Remember his plan to “pursue direct diplomacy” with Havana? Then he quickly discovered what most U.S. presidents find out:
First, communist Cuba really doesn’t want improved dialogue with Washington, since conflict with the U.S. offers more political payoff on the island. Hence Cuban leader Raúl Castro’s 2009 Christmas gift to Obama: the arrest of U.S. aid subcontractor Alan Gross on dubious espionage charges.
Second, the hardline U.S. Cuban exile lobby doesn’t want improved dialogue with Havana, since conflict with Cuba offers (or has traditionally offered) more political payoff here. Hence the Cuban-American congressional caucus’ efforts in 2011 to keep Obama from letting convicted Cuban spy René González return home to finish his probation, a fairly benign gesture that might have enhanced the chances of Gross’ release.
And yet, despite all that recent cold-war commotion, could this finally be the summer of love on the Florida Straits? Last month the Obama Administration and the Castro dictatorship started talks on re-establishing direct mail service; this month they’ll discuss immigration guidelines. Diplomats on both sides report a more cooperative groove.
So what happened that’s suddenly making it possible for the two governments to start some substantive diplomatic outreach for the first time in years?
First, Castro finished crunching the numbers on Cuba’s threadbare economy, and the results scared him more than one of Yoani Sánchez’s dissident blog posts. To wit, the island’s finances are held up by little more than European tourists and oil charity from socialist Venezuela. He’s adopted limited capitalist reforms as the remedy, and to make them work he has to loosen the repressive screws a turn or two.
That finally includes letting Cubans travel freely abroad, which gives them better opportunities to bring back investment capital. As a result, says Carlos Saladrigas, a Cuban-American business leader in Miami and chairman of the Washington-based Cuba Study Group, “The timing is right” for some U.S.-Cuban rapprochement.
“Cuba is clearly in a transitionary mode,” says Saladrigas. “They need to change to reinsert themselves in the global order, they need to become more normal in their relations with other nations.”
Second, although the White House is still intimidated by the Cuban exile lobby, it’s had its own numbers to ponder -- namely, poll results from South Florida’s Cuban-American community.
Over the past five years, surveys have consistently shown that Cuban-Americans, especially the more moderate younger generation and more recently arrived Cubans, favor engagement with Cuba as a way of promoting democratization there. Some polls even indicate that a majority want to ditch the failed 51-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.
As a result, Obama -- who according to one exit poll won 48% of Florida’s Cuban vote in last year’s presidential election, which would be a record for a Democratic candidate -- feels more elbow room for diálogo with the Castro regime. The Administration even recently let González return to Cuba.
“The Cuban-American community in Miami is definitely changing,” says Cuban-American Elena Freyre, president of the Foundation for Normalization of U.S.-Cuba Relations in Miami. “It’s reached kind of a critical mass at this point, and I think people are ready to try something different.”
Freyre notes that Obama’s appointment this year of former Massachusetts Senator John Kerry as the new U.S. secretary of state is also having an impact.
“Mr. Kerry has always felt [the U.S.’s] position with Cuba made no sense,” she says. “He’s been very vocal about thinking that if we engage Cuba we will get a lot further.” Kerry, for example, believes the U.S. should lift its ban on U.S. citizen travel to Cuba.
Conflict As Scapegoat
Still, there are just as many reasons to be pessimistic -- starting with the imprisonment of the 64-year-old Gross, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba. Saladrigas says that’s a sign that communist hardliners still hold sway on the island.
“Conflict with the U.S. has been the perfect scapegoat for many of the problems and failures of [their] revolution,” he notes.
The Castro regime says the U.S. does its own part to further that conflict by keeping Cuba on a list of state sponsors of terrorism, even though there appears to be scant evidence for doing so. Cuban-American Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart recently told Fox News that Cuba should be viewed “more like North Korea, or compare it to Iran.”
To a growing number of Cuban-Americans in South Florida, however, that sounds more like hardliner hyperbole. Last week, in fact, many Cuba watchers wondered whether fugitive U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden did not board a flight from Moscow to Havana because Castro, given the new U.S.-Cuba dialoguista climate, preferred (for the moment anyway) not to irritate Washington.
If so, let’s see if the love lasts longer than the summer.
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