Obama Thaws U.S.-Cuba Relations
Administration has quietly employed new diplomacy to try to end Cold War standoff
DeWayne Wickham, USA TODAY
While, understandably, a lot of news media attention in recent days has focused on the U.S.-led talks to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, the Obama administration appears to be laying the groundwork for another diplomatic breakthrough.
In little noticed speeches given last month, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry cryptically acknowledged the need for a new approach to Cuba, a country the U.S. has — literally and figuratively — waged war with for over a half-century.
Rejecting the “notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961” would still be effective “in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel,” Obama told a Miami audience that the U.S. has to be “creative” and “thoughtful” in its efforts to bring change to Cuba. Ten days later, in an address to the Organization of American States, Kerry said of U.S. relations with Cuba: “We have to continue to update our policies.”
And it appears the Obama administration has done just that. It is quietly employing a “new think” diplomacy in an effort to end this nation’s Cold War standoff with Cuba.
In January, Cuba ended a decades-old requirement that its citizens needed to obtain a government-issued exit permit before they could travel abroad. In July, the Obama administration increased from six months to five years the duration of visas granted to Cuban visitors to the U.S. These new visas allow Cubans to travel back and forth between the two countries, which haven’t had formal diplomatic ties since 1961.
Also this year, talks between the U.S. and Cuba to restore normal mail service have resumed. The talks were halted in 2009 after Cuba arrested Alan Gross, a State Department contractor who was caught trying to set up an underground communications network. In August, Cuba allowed U.S. doctors to visit Gross, whose health is said to be failing, for the first time. That concession came just a few months after a U.S. judge agreed to let a convicted Cuban spy, Rene Gonzalez, serve the remaining three years of his probation in Cuba.
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Gonzalez is one of five Cubans convicted in 2001 of spying on the U.S. military and Cuban exile groups in south Florida. In 2011, he was the first of the group to be released from prison, but was still on probation when he was allowed to return to Cuba to attend his father’s funeral. The judge’s order came while he was still in Havana. This is how diplomacy is supposed to work.
The Obama administration’s subtle engagement of Cuba also might account for keeping Edward Snowden out of Cuba. According to a Russian newspaper report, the rogue U.S. intelligence analyst now languishes in Russia because of Cuba’s refusal in August to allow him to fly from Moscow to Havana, where he was expected to take a connecting flight to an exile in Venezuela, Nicaragua or Bolivia.
It’s this diplomatic push and pull that Obama hopes will produce the meaningful change that the chest-beating policies of a long succession of U.S. presidents failed to bring about in Cuba.
Increased travel between the USA and Cuba is the cornerstone of the president’s détente with the communist state. Obama wisely believes that stepped up contact between Americans and Cubans will do more to improve life for people on that Caribbean island than the longstanding U.S. economic blockade.
And it is this increased contact that Obama hopes will give him the leverage he needs to solve the gnawing problems that ideologues on both sides of the Florida Straits use to keep the U.S. and Cuba locked in a Cold War battle that should have ended long ago.