By Michael Lashley
I am personally rejoicing over the triumph of two principles in the significant normalization and upgrading of the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. that was announced last week by both countries.
The announcement included the restoration of diplomatic relations, the re-establishment of embassies in both country capitals, the freeing of some “spies” and “political prisoners” incarcerated in both countries, and the enhancement of mechanisms to facilitate tourism, travel and financial remittances.
The first principle is that the Cuban people are going to have a much “fairer” opportunity to maximize their potential for economic, socio-economic and political development, including eventually the greater enjoyment of constitutional development, participatory democracy and human rights.
The second principle is that an American government is finally ‘fessing up to the absurd, ineffective and cruel reality that nine successive American governments have abused of the sovereign and developmental rights of Cuba for over five decades, while engaging politically and economically with other countries such as China, the former Soviet Union and now Russia which the American government perceives as being guilty of the same “objectionable” practices of which they accused Cuba: the lack of respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, justice and the rule of law.
As a human being, a Caribbean person, a former academic and a former diplomat, I have been scandalized by the sheer hypocrisy, the extreme paranoia, the ideological narrow-mindedness and the political vindictiveness that lay at the core of the economic blockade and the political victimization that persisted for decades, long after the Cold War became irrelevant.
Looking now on the positive side of the decisions taken and implemented by President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro, I am overjoyed that the Cuban people will move forward on the long journey to the level of development of which they are eminently capable. That great potential is amply demonstrated by the fact that, in spite of 50 years as a political and economic victim of international bullying, Cuba has excelled in such diverse fields as medicine, bio-technology, public health, education, housing, sports and culture and the arts.
That does not mean that Cuba is a model of perfection in the international community of nations. The Cuban authorities themselves have always recognized there is a lot of work they need to do to improve the country’s standard of living and economic governance. And Cuban dissidents, exiles and emigrants consistently provide a long list of political grievances, accusations and complaints against their country’s government.
In that context, however, it is remarkable that Cuba is often ranked as the world’s leading donor of aid and development assistance on a per capita basis. Its contribution to education and public health for the citizens of developing countries over the decades is legendary. When natural disasters strike in the Caribbean region, the Cubans are among the first to arrive with resources and personnel to address the crisis and to bring relief and ongoing structured recovery efforts to the affected communities.
Similarly, the late presidents Agostinho Neto of Angola, Samora Machel of Mozambique and Nelson Mandela of South Africa, were they alive today, would be singing the praises of the Cuban people, ex-president Castro and current President Raul Castro for Cuba’s substantial military, political and material support of the liberation of those three countries from colonial domination.
History will also record the important supporting role played by the Canadian government and the Vatican’s Pope Francis in facilitating the long, secretive and detailed negotiations that led to the multi-faceted agreement reached by the U.S. and Cuba. Moreover, it is to the credit of the English-speaking Caribbean countries and of Canada that they have had the political will to sustain their diplomatic and (as much as possible) economic relations with Cuba, in spite of the forceful protestations and pressures of the U.S.
The new measures negotiated by Obama with Raul Castro are important first steps in re-starting the bilateral relationship. But only the American Congress has the legal competence to formally revoke the economic blockade, and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act that handicaps Cuba’s ability to conduct business transactions internationally.
And both Houses of the incoming Congress which is due to start its sessions next January will be dominated by Republican majorities whose official attitude towards Obama’s new policy on Cuba is still open to doubt.
There is, however, no doubt in my mind that there will be other major policy initiatives on the political agenda of Obama that are being readied. He has already used his two terms to produce four history-making start-ups in health care, immigration, international climate change and Cuban policy.
I am convinced he has recognized his equally historic duty to roll out at least one more: on race relations in the U.S.