It’s time to Break It Down!
The United States and Cuba, just ninety miles apart, though for more than 50 years they might as well have been in two different solar systems. In fact, for all practical purpose they were a world away…until now. On Sunday President Barack Obama bridged another ideological chasm by becoming the first U.S. President in 88 years to visit the Island nation. As many observers have noted, the Cuba that the 30th President (Coolidge) visited is not the same as the one 44 visited this week.
The ninety miles that separate Cuba and Key West is equivalent to a trip from Charlotte to Greensboro (North Carolina), or from Washington, DC to Richmond, VA, (though we are are separated from Cuba by the Atlantic Ocean rather than a highway). Folks who know the history of our two countries are aware the spatial and geographic distance has not been the primary barrier between the two. Rather geo-political differences, nearly capped by a potential nuclear war between the United Soviet Socialist Republic (former official name of Russia) and the United States of America.
Fidel Castro led a movement in Cuba to overthrow Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. Though Batista was a strongman, he was also a U.S. ally. The Cuban Revolution, which displaced Batista (with Castro) lasted from 1952 to 1959. Castro immediately changed Cuba’s political dynamics by aligning himself and the country with Russia, which was engaged in the Cold War with the U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower responded to this shift by allocating $13.1 million to the CIA to plan Castro’s overthrow. The organization worked with counter-revolutionary forces to plan the operation.
The (failed) operation known as the Bay of Pigs Invasion resulted. On April 17, 1961 the CIA-sponsored expedition manned by the paramilitary group Brigade 2506 confronted the Cuban Army, led by Prime Minister Fidel Castro. The invading group had been trained in Guatemala, and launched its mission from that country. The CIA had grossly underestimated the Cuban Army’s readiness for battle; the counter-revolutionaries were defeated in 3 days.
This incursion agitated Fidel Castro. He grew even fonder of his budding relationship with Nikita Khrushchev and Russia. As a result, he asked Khrushchev to intervene. Partly in response to the Bay of Pigs Invasion, but more due to the U.S. having deployed Jupiter ballistic missiles in Italy and Turkey with Moscow within range, The Soviet agreed to a request from Castro to place nuclear missiles in Cuba to deter future American harassment of Cuba. After a secret agreement between Nikita and Fidel in July, construction of a number of missile launch facilities started later that summer.
This high stakes political poker game was known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, which lasted 13 days, from October 16-28, 1962. The hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union took center stage for the whole world. Up until today, this exercise in brinkmanship is as close as the world has come to a full-scale nuclear war. A long period of tense negotiations ensued.
Ultimately, President John F. Kennedy, who succeeded President Eisenhower, and Nikita Khrushchev, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union forged an agreement to stand down. The Soviets dismantled their missiles in Cuba and returned them to Russia (Technically the U.S.S.R. was comprised of more than Russia). This weaponry downgrade was subject to U.S. inspection and verification. For its part, the U.S. agreed never to invade Cuba without direct provocation. Secretly, it also agreed to dismantle American missiles in Italy and Turkey. The high intensity of these negotiations between the two Super Powers revealed a need for a quick, clear, and direct communication line between the two nations’ leaders in Washington and Moscow. Because of this, the two countries established the Moscow–Washington hotline. Afterward, a series of agreements sharply reduced tensions between the two countries over the course of subsequent years.
The seven preceding paragraphs went deep into the weeds of American History, Cuban History, and geo-politics. Undoubtedly that includes more information about a time before many of you were born than some readers feel they would ever need to know. However, sometimes there is no substitute for context. Those paragraphs provide the bedrock for not only how, but why we needed to get to this past Sunday and President Obama’s visit in the first place. To give you a quick anecdote, I saw a meme recently that said, “The person who knows how will always have a job. The person who knows why will always be his/her boss.” The quote was attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson. I want you to know why President Obama needed to go to Cuba so that you can be a (knowledge) boss, not merely someone working your way through (the weeds of) this topic. And yes, it’s that important.
On December 17, 2014, after secretive discussions, heavily influenced by Pope Francis, President Obama announced the restoration of full diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, and the opening of an embassy in Havana. Pope Francis helped broker a prisoner swap, which was a key element of the rapprochement of the two nations. When I initially posted on this topic, back on July 1, 2015 (…”Rapprochement: The United States and Cuba Resume Diplomatic Relations!”), I framed the unexpected news this way:
“The announcement, a surprise at the time, followed the end of 18 months of secret talks that produced a prisoner swap negotiated with the help of Pope Francis, and concluded by a telephone call between Presidents Obama and Raúl Castro. The unexpected and historic deal broke a prolonged stalemate between two countries separated by just 90 miles of water, but oceans of mistrust and hostility that go back to the days of Theodore Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill, and the nuclear brinksmanship of the Cuban missile crisis.”
Cuba was always on President Obama’s foreign policy agenda to-do list. There were those who doubted he would get it done…and others who hoped he would not. Not surprisingly, there are a number of folks who are less than enthused now that he has moved on another key initiative that once again, flummoxed his opponents. Still, despite the naysayers, there was no lack of interest, judging by the size of the President’s travel party. Not only did a host of members of Congress make the trip, but he was also accompanied by a number of American businessmen.
A frequent question I have heard or seen in print in the wake of the President’s trip is “Will anything of substance emerge from this venture?” Tealeaf reading is not my forte. I do believe however that the President built this move on a solid foundation; recognition of the fact that five plus decades of embargoing Cuba has not substantially benefited America, or Cuba. While it may have provided Cuban Americans with an element of satisfaction over exacting punishment for their personal loss, the preponderance of economic “timeout” did not bring Cuba to its knees, nor return expatriates their possessions. The President has reasoned that moving to a win-win scenario from a lose-lose- scenario makes more sense, both in terms of economics and of humanitarianism. Not only might both countries receive a boon, but also, formerly estranged family members may leverage new opportunities to reunite. It may not be a huge step forward, but a step forward it is.
In wrapping this up, consider several examples of how President Obama pressed his own case:
“I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas. I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.”
He noted the continuation of very real differences between the two countries, including political systems and economic models. On this point he added:
“I can’t force you to agree,” then he added his belief that “every person should be equal under the law; citizens should be free to speak their mind without fear.” That line drew applause.
He also said that people should be able “to organize, to criticize their government, and to protest peacefully, and they should not be arrested for doing so.”
He recognized that not everyone agrees with him on these issues, but went on to say, “But I believe those human rights are universal. I believe they are the rights of the American people, the Cuban people and people around the world.”
President Obama also made a key observation about the Presidential races here in America. He noted:
“You had two Cuban-Americans in the Republican Party running against the legacy of a black man who was president while arguing that they’re the best person to beat the Democratic nominee who will either be a woman or a democratic socialist. Who would have believed that in 1959? That’s a measure of our progress as a country.”
Of course while the trip is steeped in diplomacy and meetings, and concluding discussions, negotiations, and agreements, there was more. President Obama took his family, including Michelle, Malia, Sasha, and his mother-in-law, Mrs. Robinson. They attended a scheduled baseball game between the Cuban National Team and the Tampa Bay Rays. President Obama sat between President Castro and his family. For record, and for the baseball fans among you, The Rays won, 4-1.
At least for now, I will embrace the optimistic point of view regarding that frequent query I noted above. I believe that POTUS’ visit will yield substantive results for the people of Cuba, not just for the Castro Brothers and for American businesses. It is said a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Consider the journey underway. “Viva Cuba: President Obama Visits Havana!”
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