The Cuban breakthrough

The Cuban breakthrough

An old photograph of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro has lately been circulating on social media, with speech bubbles in which Che asks “When will relations with the US be restored?” and a chuckling Fidel responds: “When the United States has a black president and the pope is an Argentinean, like you.”

Recent developments on that front will presumably inject an extra dose of optimism into celebrations marking the 56th anniversary of the Cuban revolution on January 1, given the prospects of at least a gradual easing of the economic squeeze the island has long endured, primarily as the consequence of an ideological vendetta.

The more or less simultaneous announcements in Havana and Washington predicating the inauguration of a new phase in relations took most observers by surprise. The preceding 18 months of negotiations, mostly conducted in Canada, were a well-kept secret, as was the role of Pope Francis as both an intermediary and a guarantor.

As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama had indicated his willingness to push the reset button on ties with Cuba, and as president he has vaguely been reiterating the stance since 2009. But not many people expected much to come of it, given that his “change we can believe in” mantra in most cases added up to precious little. Besides, it was common knowledge that the Miami-based Cuban-American lobby remained implacably opposed to any overtures to Havana.

Intriguingly, though, despite his perceived “softness” towards Cuba, Obama won Florida in both 2008 and 2012. This could partly be attributed to a phenomenon that the more percipient observers have been commenting on for several years: namely that younger Cuban-Americans tend to be considerably less blockheaded than their parents about the choices Cuba has made since 1959.

There is also a broad tendency to overlook the fact that the Cuban revolutionaries of that era, notwithstanding their disenchantment with imperialism, were perfectly willing to establish mutually respectful relations with Washington. They were disinclined, though, to pander to US diktat on the economic front, and the nationalisation of US-owned enterprises followed the refusal of American firms to refine crude oil obtained from the Soviet Union.

There is a persistent school of thought that ascribes the assassination of John F. Kennedy to the failed attempt to invade Cuba in 1961 via the Bay of Pigs, essentially as payback for the broken vow from JFK’s dad that his son would restore mafia ascendancy in Havana if the underworld helped to ensconce him in the White House. JFK sensibly refused to provide US air cover for the CIA recruits sent into Cuba under the assumption that the masses would flock to the anti-Castro cause. The following year he also resisted the advice of generals who were eager to nuke Cuba after it emerged that the island was hosting Soviet nuclear missiles, choosing instead to negotiate with Nikita Khrushchev.

More than half a century later, it is still widely assumed that in the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between the superpowers, it was Khrushchev who blinked by agreeing to pull out the missiles. However, the Soviet leader crucially got JFK to agree that the US would desist from attempts to invade Cuba.

Washington has stuck by that undertaking, although it didn’t prevent it from doggedly pursuing assassination attempts against Fidel Castro and unceasing efforts at subversion. Meanwhile, which of the two sides blinked in the lead-up to this month’s rapprochement remains a matter of perception, just as the consequences of the new deal remain open to conjecture.

Obama lacks the power to lift the economic blockade imposed in 1960 and reinforced two years later: only the US Congress can do that, and it will inevitably be reluctant to proceed under Republican control — although by no means are all Republicans opposed to an opening, albeit chiefly under the assumption that restored ties will enable the US to play a more dominant role in determining Cuba’s post-Castro future. Obama himself channeled that line of thought in declaring that the change of track was necessitated by the fact it hadn’t worked for more than 50 years, rather than because its was reprehensible in the first place.

The US president is, meanwhile, expected to use his executive powers to loosen the embargo, facilitate travel between the two countries, and to authorise the re-establishment of full diplomatic relations — even though legislators such as the extremist Senator Marco Rubio have vowed to thwart funding for an embassy and congressional approval of a new ambassador.

Within Cuba, however, there is substantial evidence that even those hungry for greater economic opportunities and a dose of glasnost are keen to retain the most outstanding gains of the revolution, notably the highest standard of education in Latin America and a level of healthcare that extends to almost a knee-jerk deployment of Cuban doctors in disaster zones the world over — exemplified most recently by Havana’s leading contribution to the crusade against Ebola