Of all the follies that American-Communist rivalry spawned during the long Cold War none was more obtuse than the United States’ futile diplomatic and economic boycott of Cuba. It demeaned a superpower, kneecapped Cuban reformers and inflicted untold suffering on a small island nation.
Now, with just a bit of help from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government and a backroom nudge from Pope Francis, an era of hostility and confrontation appears to be coming to an end, the Toronto Star’s Mitch Potter reports from Washington.
In a long overdue move, President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro have agreed to move beyond a half-century of mistrust and enmity and open a “new chapter” of normalized relations. That offers the hope of winding down the punitive American economic embargo that has hobbled Cuba’s economy and cost its people $100 billion over the years without bringing down its government.
Fidel Castro, his brother and the Communist party have outlasted 10 American presidents since John F. Kennedy imposed the embargo in 1962, a year after the U.S. severed diplomatic ties. Meanwhile, the U.S. has been happy to do a burgeoning trade with communist China, and with communist regimes in Vietnam, Laos, even (to a limited extent) with North Korea. With every passing year the boycott of Cuba grew more pointless, vindictive and absurd.
Under the deal, which involved a high-profile spy swap, the U.S. and Cuba have agreed to restore full diplomatic relations. Washington will ease restrictions on travel, banking and cash that can be sent to the island and move to delist Cuba as a state sponsor of terror. On its side, Cuba will free a batch of political prisoners.
The American embargo, however, will stand until the U.S. Congress lifts it, which will be an uphill battle for any administration. But Obama’s move to upgrade official U.S. government exchanges and a wide range of trade and other contacts is calculated to make the embargo increasingly hollow. Obama will also let U.S. firms improve Cuba’s weak Internet network, which will empower Cuban civil society and its growing business class.
Most Canadians will welcome this breakthrough, and take pride in playing a modest role by hosting the secret talks that led to it. Canada, like most countries, has never supported the boycott despite U.S. pressure over the years. We have always held the view that Cubans must be free to shape their own destiny.
Obama’s bold move makes good on the pledge he made in the early days of his presidency to “reach out to the Cuban people.” It will infuriate an aging generation of Cuban-American exiles (and Republicans) who revile the Castro regime. But it will resonate with the exiles’ American-born children, who bear less antipathy. And with many Americans generally. More importantly, it will help reunite Cuba’s 11 million people with the two million Americans who have ties to the island. More interaction can only nudge Cuba in a better direction.
Raúl Castro, too, deserves credit for taking a risk. His Communist party — the “leading force” in the country — presides over a repressive police state. But Castro has encouraged small business and private farmers, allowed people to travel abroad, and legalized the sale of homes and autos. All this has empowered people.
Deeper ties with the U.S. will embolden Cuba’s democrats and reformers to press for genuine elections, credible courts and an open economy. Until now, American hostility gave the regime a pretext to suppress human rights and to jail dissidents under the guise of defending the state.
That will be harder to justify as a long, sterile feud winds down. That’s good news for Americans, Cubans and the entire hemisphere.