Cuba, Turkey and the unbearable feeling of loneliness

Cuba, Turkey and the unbearable feeling of loneliness

It takes courage to accept failure. U.S. President Barack Obama has shown the world that he can learn from the facts and abandon a long-failed policy – because U.S. policy toward Cuba has been a disaster, a remnant of the 20th century. The president’s actions this week set the stage: No more 20th century obstacles to U.S. policy making. A country with unresolved issues from the last century cannot lead in the present. Obama just showed that Americans have the courage to lead again, and lead by example.

Turkey, meanwhile, is a country not only burdened with 20th century problems, but also quite a few from the 19th century. Such a country cannot be a regional anything. We urgently need to come to terms with our own history and neighborhood. Yet we seem to be going the opposite way. Not only are we not tackling these old problems, we are creating new ones.

We used to complain in Turkey that the Americans were telling us to mend fences with our neighbors rather than worrying about their own. There are no direct flights to Cuba, after all, because Americans weren’t allowed to travel there. In this age of constant connectivity, American cellphones do not function on the island, as there is no roaming agreement between the countries’ companies.

Now Obama has decided to pick up where his predecessors stopped nearly half a century ago. Think about it: Every president since Kennedy has chosen to continue the embargo that was supposed to bring Castro to his knees. All the while, evidence was mounting against the policy. Jimmy Carter, coming from an ideological place, wanted to restart relations with Havana on the condition that it withdraws its troops from Angola. Castro did not budge. Twenty years into the blockade, isolation was by that point a badge of honor.

If there is another island similarly frozen in conflict, it surely is Cyprus. The moment my plane touched down at Larnaca Airport, I got the shudder of the feeling of being totally alone in this world. It was because I knew I couldn’t do what is by now almost muscle memory – turn on my cell phone to check my email. My phone with its Turkish SIM card was useless on the southern, Greek side of the island, because Turkey does not recognize it and therefore its telecom providers cannot ink agreements with their Greek-Cypriot counterparts.

That is an uncomfortable feeling, since we are all now accustomed to being constantly connected via the digital grid. The few adventurous Americans who have gone to Cuba probably welcomed the opportunity to unplug, and many describe with fondness the old cars and shoddy roads as being akin to going back in time. Ask the Cubans though, and you are likely to get a much different tone. There is a reason why we are connecting our economies and cultures across borders. It’s just a better way to live.

South Nicosia is not the only capital that Turks are not on talking terms with. We officially recognized the Republic of Armenia in 1991, but have still yet to establish normal diplomatic relations with it. Relations with Tel Aviv have been all but cut, and now even Cairo is on the list – we are just not talking to them, and they aren’t sending us any cards either. I am not even counting Damascus - that is a different story. In fact, the only capital in the Levant where Turkey currently has an ambassador is Beirut. We also have an ambassador-level appointment to Palestine, who stays in Jerusalem.

Why is our circle of resentful neighbors growing? Why are we at each other’s throat? What can we do to stop that circle from widening? Perhaps we need to change the way we engage them.

Remember the old joke: A man is happily driving on the highway when an announcement comes on the radio: “Beware of the car on the highway driving the wrong way.” The man is annoyed, he’s trying to concentrate on the road. “Just one?” he thinks to himself. “They’re all going the wrong way!”