WASHINGTON — The “Government of Canada” and a timely nudge from Pope Francis were crucial ingredients in ending America’s half century of isolation on Cuba, President Barack Obama said Wednesday.
In a 15-minute address from the White House, Obama singled out Canada’s role as a third-party broker, hosting secret talks that led to the historic rapprochement.
Obama said U.S. policy that “aimed to isolate the island” was rooted in events that transpired before most Americans were born. But the 1961 policy “had little effect.
“We will end this outdated approach ... and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.”
The new chapter started with the release Wednesday morning of American contractor Alan Gross, 65, from a Cuban prison where he had been held for five years. The U.S. in exchange sent back three Cuban spies in U.S. prison since 2001.
Speaking simultaneously in Havana, Cuban President Raul Castro echoed Obama’s remarks, praising Canada and Pope Francis for their roles as key mediators in the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with the U.S.
“We have profound differences on sovereignty, nationhood and democracy,” Castro cautioned in a nationally televised broadcast, the Star’s Oakland Ross reports.
“But we reaffirm our will to dialogue about all of these matters.”
Reading from a sheaf of notes and wearing his army uniform, Raul called on Washington to remove a range of obstacles to better relations, including restrictions on family visits and on direct mail between the two countries.
The Cuban leader acknowledged that his U.S. counterpart cannot unilaterally remove the economic embargo Washington has long imposed on its Cuban neighbour — this would require an act of the U.S. Congress — but he said Obama could adopt measures that would “modify” the embargo’s impact.
While exercising tight political control over Cuba’s 11 million people, Raul Castro has also instituted a wide range of liberal economic reforms since taking over as head of the Cuban government eight years ago.
These include a rapid expansion in private enterprise. By one estimate, the number of privately owned Cuban businesses — including restaurants, beauty parlours, and small taxi services — has soared from 150,000 in 2006, when Raul stepped in, to more than 460,000 today.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, “Canada was pleased to host the senior officials from the United States and Cuba, which permitted them the discretion required to carry out these important talks.”
Associated Press reported Canada hosted seven meetings in Toronto and Ottawa.
“I wish to congratulate the Government of the United States and the Government of Cuba on their successful dialogue and negotiations which will lead to normalized relations between their two countries,” Harper said in a statement.
“Canada supports a future for Cuba that fully embraces the fundamental values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.”
NDP MP Paul Dewar also praised the steps taken by Obama.
“President Obama has made major progress in normalizing relations with Cuba and I believe this will be beneficial to the people of Cuba,” Dewar said in a statement.
Obama, who was born in 1961 as Cuban-U.S. relations unravelled, laid out how and why his administration is moving to end the isolation imposed on Cuba for more than half a century.
The steps effectively end an embargo that has been one of the most durable elements of U.S. foreign policy. Travellers will be able to use credit cards in Cuba and Americans will be able to legally bring home up to $100 in previously illegal Cuban cigars treasured by aficionados.
“Though this policy has been rooted in the best of intentions, it has had little effect. Today, as in 1961, Cuba is governed by the Castros and the Communist party,” the White House said in a fact sheet released Wednesday morning.
“We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse.”
Canadian author and pundit Keith Bolender has written two books about Cuba and Cuban-U.S. relations, one of them in collaboration with U.S. leftist gadfly Noam Chomsky. He talked to the Star’s Oakland Ross about Wednesday’s news of the breakthrough in U.S.-Cuban relations.
“It’s just incredible,” he said.
Bolender cautioned, though, that the U.S. president is limited in his ability to fundamentally reform Washington’s long-troubled relations with its Caribbean neighbour.
“The reality is that the legal aspects of the embargo and restrictions on travel remain in the hands of Congress,” said Bolender. “The actual laws are still in the hands of Congress.”
Bolender particularly welcomed Obama’s decision to stop branding Cuba as an exporter of state terrorism.
“Taking Cuba off the list of states that sponsor terror — that would be a huge development,” he said.
In the past, the large Cuban American community concentrated in South Florida has opposed any hint of normalizing relations between Washington and Havana. No U.S. president until now has wanted to risk his standing among so large and focused a constituency, especially in a large swing state. But Florida’s Cuban American community is no longer the monolith it once was.
“You look at the demographic changes taking place in Florida, and they have shifted considerably,” said Bolender. “A majority of Cuban Americans are now in favour of normalization. The dynamics in Florida have changed dramatically.”
He admitted, however, that many Cuban Americans continue to oppose improved relations with Havana. “You always have the hard right who object to anything that would bring these two countries together.”
As part of the U.S. overture, Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed he will send a diplomatic delegation to Cuba in January to begin a round of U.S.-Cuba Migration Talks.
Kerry said he was a “17-year-old kid watching on a black-and-white television set” when he first heard a U.S. president speak of Cuba as an “imprisoned island.”
“For five and a half decades since, our policy toward Cuba has remained virtually frozen, and done little to promote a prosperous, democratic and stable Cuba,” Kerry said in a statement. “Not only has this policy failed to advance America’s goals, it has actually isolated the United States instead of isolating Cuba.”
Kerry cited the decades-long process of rebuilding relations with Vietnam as a blueprint for the new American approach to Cuba, saying, “It wasn’t easy. It still isn’t complete today. But it had to start somewhere, and it has worked.”
The blowback from Obama’s critics was immediate, led by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, whose supporters include a significant portion of the estimated 2 million Americans of Cuban descent.
“The White House has conceded everything and gained little,” Rubio fumed, saying the agreement comes with “no binding commitment” for a transition to democracy or the outside monitoring by the United Nations or International Committee of the Red Cross.
“This entire policy shift announced today is based on an illusion, a lie,” said Rubio. “All this is going to do is give the Castro regime ... the opportunity to manipulate these changes to perpetuate itself in power.”
The embargo is one of the last remnants of the Cold War, sacrosanct in U.S. domestic politics because of the influence of the Cuban-American exile community in Florida. Generational shifts have reduced support for the embargo, though Obama’s moves drew criticism from some Cuban-American lawmakers.
Limits on Cuban-Americans’ remittances to relatives in their homeland will jump to $8,000 from $2,000 annually. U.S. companies will be permitted to export an expansive list of goods, including building materials, and be allowed to build telecommunications infrastructure on the island.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez, who gives up his gavel to a Republican in January, criticized Obama’s action, saying it “sets an extremely dangerous precedent” that “invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips.”
“President Obama’s actions have vindicated the brutal behaviour of the Cuban government,” said the New Jersey Democrat, whose parents fled Cuba during Fidel Castro’s reign. “I fear that today’s actions will put at risk the thousands of Americans that work overseas to support civil society, advocate for access to information, provide humanitarian services, and promote democratic reforms.”
Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat close to Obama, said the action is long overdue.
“Opening the door with Cuba for trade, travel, and the exchange of ideas will create a force for positive change in Cuba that more than 50 years of our current policy of exclusion could not achieve,” Durbin, who visited Gross in Cuba in 2012, said Wednesday in an emailed statement.
Raul Castro reaffirmed his commitment to socialism in Wednesday’s televised address, vowing to create “a prosperous and sustainable socialism” while remaining faithful to Cuban notions of “independence and social justice.”
“We have to learn the art of living together despite our differences,” he said, referring to more than five decades of mutual hostility between the two countries.
The Cuban leader also gave his version of the exchange of prisoners that accompanied Wednesday’s announcement of normalized relations between the two countries.
He called the release of Gross, 65, a “humanitarian” gesture.
As for 53 Cuban political detainees freed from jail at the same time, Castro referred to these individuals merely as “prisoners in whom the United States has shown an interest,” without identifying them as prisoners of conscience.
He spoke enthusiastically about the release from U.S. jails of the three remaining members of a group of prisoners widely known as the Cuba Five, a group of Cubans sentenced to long prison sentences in 2001 for after they infiltrated anti-Castro groups operating in Florida.
Gross had been arrested by Cuban officials while working to expand Internet access for Havana’s Jewish community. He was accused of undermining the Cuban state and in December 2009 was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Canadian businessman Cy Tokmakjian of Vaughan has been in a Cuban prison since his arrest in September 2011 on suspicion of bribery. Tokmakjian, who is in his mid 70s, had been doing business in Cuba for 20 years when he was arrested.
Trade with Cuba has been severely restricted for half a century due to a Cold War freeze.
Under President John F. Kennedy, the Central Intelligence Agency backed an armed invasion of the island along with repeated attempts to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro, Raul’s older brother.
The U.S. has maintained an embargo on most trade with the island, a policy that periodically has come under pressure from American business interests that see potential profit there. The World Bank, citing 2011 data, pegs the island’s gross domestic product at more than $68 billion — about what the U.S. produced that year in a day and a half, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Raul Castro took over the Cuban presidency after his older brother Fidel suffered a life-threatening illness in 2006.
Since then, Fidel has appeared in public only on rare occasions. He occasionally pens essays on current events that appear in Granma, official newspaper of the Cuban Communist Party but is no longer thought to have much direct impact on Cuban politics. A more flexible thinker than his older brother, Raul seems to be fully in charge now.
“Raul is much more pragmatic than Fidel,” Bolender told Oakland Ross. “I’m assuming that Fidel was consulted about this, but I really don’t think he has the influence now that people think he has.”
- With files from Bloomberg