By Amit Dasgupta
Crafted in extreme secrecy and brokered by Pope Francis, the thaw in US-Cuba relations is a tectonic shift in international relations and quite possibly the boldest initiative of 2014. So stunning and unexpected was the announcement that its implications are yet to be fully fathomed. In India, not surprisingly, the self-absorbed media all but neglected to report the historic event.
The details of the thaw were being negotiated, even as President Vladimir Putin visited Cuba in July 2014 and entered into a series of new agreements to further bolster Moscow-Havana links. These included the reopening of the former Soviet base in Lourdes that had been mothballed in 2001, and could be used as a listening post for US maritime activity across the Straits. Cuba apparently agreed to also allow Moscow to establish a GPS on the island, as part of a space cooperation programme. All seemed to be going well on the Moscow-Havana front.
When the news of the historic rapprochement broke, a stunned Moscow reacted as best as it could, with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov welcoming the announcement. For cash-strapped Moscow, there appeared little else it could do.
There is increasing speculation that the development could see the erosion of Moscow’s influence on Havana. Castro, however, made it clear to Washington that the thaw would not result in a change in either the regime in Havana or in the political or economic system. Nor indeed are their any credible indications that Washington wishes to pursue such an objective. President Barack Obama appears content in forging closer economic and trade ties across the Florida Straits and recognizes that this per se will dramatically dilute Moscow’s influence.
Congressional approval is now required to lift the economic, trade and financial embargo against Cuba. This is not going to be easy with dissident lawmakers from the Cuban American fraternity protesting Obama’s unilateral decision to change “the Cuba policy”. In Cuba itself, dissident groups have lamented that Obama did not wait for a gesture from Havana on human rights. Some have even dubbed Obama’s step as “treason”.
The Japan Times reported that the restoration of diplomatic ties was cautiously welcomed by Cubans because it “unleashed expectations of even more momentous changes” and, simultaneously, the “yearning was tempered with anxiety”. There was fear of a cultural onslaught or that crime and drugs would become an inevitable byproduct of closer relations with the US and the influx of American tourists.
In Latin America, the development received wide endorsement and laudatory references even from countries that were long perceived as being hostile to Washington. There are hopeful signs that the agreement could see closer rapport between the US and its Latin American neighbours. Indeed, the White House announced that a Washington visit by President Raul Castro is not out of the question.
While Beijing has welcomed the development and expressed hope that the embargo would be lifted, a stronger US influence in Latin America is bad news for Beijing, which has been aggressively wooing the region and whose growing presence would have been a cause for natural anxiety in Washington.
Today, the thaw dramatically alters the game by virtue of the US’ physical proximity to Latin America. This could well be the beginning of a new foreign and security architecture in the region and one that will undoubtedly leave Beijing and Moscow out of the equation.
To appreciate the enormity of the development, it helps to recall what led to US sanctions in the first place and the progressive deterioration in US-Cuba relations. Fidel Castro came to power in 1959 by overthrowing General Batista, with partial US support. Three months later, Castro visited Washington and has been photographed admiring monuments. He also met Richard Nixon, then the vice president.
Soon after, Castro imposed a series of restrictions on imports from the US. American analysts attributed this to Castro’s communist leanings. The Eisenhower administration imposed trade restrictions; Castro called it “Yankee imperialism” and expanded trade with the Soviet Union.
By early 1960s, the CIA was given carte blanche authorization to assassinate Castro. Many attempts were made. Castro’s popularity in Cuba soared. Even the CIA’s Bay of Pigs operation to train Cuban exiles for a ground attack failed. President John F. Kennedy approved a permanent embargo in February 1962, after ordering 1200 Cuban cigars for himself.
In October 1962, American spy planes produced photographic evidence of the Soviet Union building missile sites in Cuba, evidently aimed at the US. Many refer to the Cuban Missile Crisis as the pivotal moment in the Cold War. Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev, after a tense 13-day period, managed to resolve the crisis, which had the world on tenterhooks about the breakout of a war between the superpowers. Over the years that followed, US embargo and sanctions have increasingly been strengthened. All of this looks set to be finally dismantled.
Ernst Hemingway, who lived in Havana for 22 years, and where he wrote his classic book “Old Man and the Sea”, would be pleased. It is time that I put my feet up and read the book again. But hang on, let me first get myself a cigar. Cuban, of course.