Research: Commentary

A New Era in U.S.-Cuba Relations

Tampa Bay Times, May 28, 2015 | Article

By Wayne Smith

Negotiators from the United States and Cuba met in Washington last week to finalize an agreement on re-establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries. When they adjourned on May 22, they were so close to final agreement that Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, the chief U.S. negotiator, said another round of talks would probably not even be necessary. In a matter of weeks, it is likely that the American flag will be flying over our old embassy building in Havana.

It has been a long time coming, 54 years in fact. I was third secretary of our embassy in Havana when we broke relations and pulled down that flag on Jan. 3, 1961. And I was chief of the U.S. Interests Section in 1982 when I left the Foreign Service because of fundamental disagreements with U.S. policy toward Cuba during the Reagan administration.

I left the State Department, but I continued to work for a more sensible, constructive policy toward Cuba, first as a Johns Hopkins University adjunct professor, and since 1992 as a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy. And in all those intervening years, I watched U.S. policy stumble ahead virtually unchanged and achieving nothing — nothing to our good, that is. When you do the same thing over and over again, such as blocking trade and refusing to dialogue, without achieving anything or bringing anyone over to your side, it's surely time to change tactics — as the Obama administration has now done.

A key result of our counterproductive policy has been our diplomatic isolation. Back in the early 1960s, Mexico was the only Latin American country that had not broken diplomatic relations with Cuba. But by 2014, every hemispheric country except the United States had full diplomatic relations with Cuba. Rather than isolating Cuba, it has been the United States that was isolated and out of step with every other nation in our hemisphere.

Last October, the United Nations voted for the 23rd year in a row to condemn the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba. Only Israel voted with the United States; 188 countries opposed the embargo. The tiny Pacific island nations of Palau, Marshall Islands and Micronesia abstained, no doubt mindful of their financial dependence on the United States. The Obama administration recognized that the United States was paying a high price for obstinately clinging to an outdated Cold War policy that the rest of the world rejected.

The United States and Cuba will still have disagreements, but once diplomatic relations have been restored, there will be an established framework to discuss and hopefully resolve most of them. We have entered a new era in relations, and there seems to be no turning back.

I was in Cuba on Dec. 17 when President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro announced that the two nations would be moving to normalize relations. In Havana there was wild cheering in the streets and the hope that better times are coming. The Cuban people are with us, and polls indicate the American people also are overwhelmingly in favor of ending the decades of hostility that have kept Cuba off-limits for most Americans.

I was back in Cuba last month, and change was in the air. The most visible sign of change was a surge in tourism, especially from the United States. I had not seen a cruise ship in Havana harbor since the 1960s. But what really caught my attention was an interview with Raul Castro in which he said he might rejoin the Catholic Church and start praying again.

Now that's change you can believe in!

CIP in the Press