Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

A Caribbean victory for diplomacy

By Alan Mcpherson (China Daily) Updated: 2014-12-24 08:19

The announcement last week by President Barack Obama that the United States and Cuba would reestablish diplomatic relations is a startling but welcome breath of fresh air in the stalest of international stalemates. Right after the media reported the mutual release of prisoners, including US Agency for International Development subcontractor Alan Gross and the three remaining members of the "Cuban Five", Obama announced that mutual embassies would soon be established.

The US president said Washington would also loosen restrictions on travel, remittances, banking and trade, and American travelers could now bring back Cuban cigars from the Caribbean country.

Cuban Americans will now be able to see their families more often and send them higher remittances - from $500 to $2,000 every three months. And all sorts of US citizens, from students to religious groups, will be able to travel to Cuba more easily.

This is a victory for diplomacy - yes, even secret diplomacy. With the Canadian government playing host, US and Cuban negotiators met behind closed doors for 18 months. Had the media had reported on the negotiations, they probably would have been scuttled by Republican accusations. Instead, rational leaders identified mutual interests of their nations and moved ahead with bold decisions.

Such progress will probably beget more progress - on immigration, the environment, and the fight against narcotics and human trafficking. The absence of Cuba was threatening to derail next summit of the Americas and further alienate the US from every government in the hemisphere. Obama has thus averted a crisis.

Normalization, to be sure, is not complete. Cuba is still not a member of the Organization of American States, and it needs more democratization than President Raul Castro is willing to allow, to join the organization.

More important is the remaining embargo. The outlawing of most trade with Cuba is the longest embargo, in place since 1962. In the 1990s, US Congress, pressured by the Cuban-American lobby, codified it into law. So it can only be fully rescinded by another act of Congress.

But Congress has generally been slow to act on anything, especially on Cuba. And Republicans, as usual, are the greatest impediment to progress. They have long outdone Democrats in being "tough" on Cuba with their rhetoric in order to win votes in Florida, a swing state. This time will be no different.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush both will probably run for president in 2016. They will try to use the normalization of US-Cuba relations to declare that the Democrats are going soft on communism.

But Obama should not let the inmates run the asylum. The stakes are too high and too clear. The limited loosening of cash-and-carry trade in food and medicine in the 2000s produced hundreds of millions of dollars in yearly sales for the US.

The Cubans need normalization more than the US does. There is every reason to think that they will pursue more of it, if the US government remains respectful and stays out of Cuban politics.

The author is the chair of Latin American Studies and the director of the Center for the Americas at the University of Oklahoma.

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