One more relic of the Cold War was torn down yesterday as the governments of Cuba and the United States announced they were resuming diplomatic recognition and undertaking an exchange of prisoners. The changes announced yesterday also take down a few bricks in the wall of the U.S. embargo against the island nation, but most of that wall will remain in place pending congressional action.
In its fifty-plus years, the embargo and isolation of Cuba has failed to achieve its objective. Intended to undermine the regime, it has only undermined the Cuban economy. The regime has remained in place and the economy has remained stuck in the 1960s too. This harms only the people of Cuba, a fact that has been obvious for some time: embargoes only work if they are universal and, besides, the embargo served the regime’s purposes too, giving the Castro brothers a ready scapegoat for economic stagnation. But, facts have been less determinative of U.S. policy than passion when it comes to Cuba, which is understandable for those whose lives were disrupted by Castro’s revolution, but should never have given the exile community a blanket veto on progress in improving relations between our two countries.
No one should look at Cuba with rose-colored glasses. Fidel Castro is a bad man who did many evil things. But, the U.S. has diplomatic relations with Russia and I suspect Vladimir Putin is just as bad as Castro. China is certainly as repressive as Cuba, but we have diplomatic relations with that country. Cuba was the outlier. In the 1960s, when relations were broken, Cuba was not just a bad actor, it was a threat. It has been a long time since Cuba was a threat. Additionally, since Fidel left the stage and his brother Raul took the reins of power in Havana, incremental changes have begun on the island. In the past few years, the regime has returned some 100 institutions to the Catholic Church, for example.
“The changes that people want to see usually come as a result of conversations and negotiations,” said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, a man with a thorough knowledge of conditions on the island and in the ex-pat community in south Florida. “They’re not usually pre-conditions of negotiations or conversations.” It is a truism, one that will only grow more and more important, as the methods of war and violence become technologically more effective, that it is better to talk than to argue, and better to argue than to fight. The exception – Munich – proves the rule.
President Obama seemed to be enjoying the moment as he announced the changes yesterday. I have mentioned before that my housemate has a knack for pithily capturing something that I am trying to find the words to express. Said he: “Boy, don’t you wish Obama had become a lame duck a long time ago.” Finally, as control of Congress shifts to the Republicans, making it harder for Obama to achieve his goals, he seems to have found his mojo. I am sure future psychologists will delve into the hows and whys of this transformation. It is politically welcome whatever its psychological source.
For Catholics, one of the proudest aspects of the deal was the role that the Holy Father and Vatican diplomats played in encouraging the negotiations. Both President Castro and President Obama praised the Pope specifically and thanked the Vatican generally for facilitating the negotiations. (Canada also hosted many of the meetings that led to yesterday’s announcement.) It is easy to see why world leaders in many parts of the world might take a risk they might not otherwise take if they can claim the moral support of Pope Francis: What politician would not give their eye teeth for his poll numbers! And, if this pontiff lends his enormous popularity to efforts at cultivating a spirit of dialogue and encounter rather than war and violence, if he helps to create a space in which conversations can be had, surely he is exercising a ministry of reconciliation that the world needs. In a few days, we shall hear the words of the angel, “Peace on earth to men of goodwill.” Pope Francis is upping the ante, calling for peace between people of good will and those like the Castro brothers who are not entirely good willed and those like us in the States with a long history of exploitation south of the border. Thanks be to God.
The criticisms of the deal were less surprising than the deal itself. Sen. Marco Rubio seemed incapable of articulating a rationale for the status quo, repeating bromidic defenses of the status quo. And, EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo, always keen to carry water for the Republican Party, was quick to throw some cold water on the news. He tweeted out: “If the Vatican can broker human and religious rights in Cuba, this could prove worthwhile. But they do not seem to be major goals for US” and “On this Cuba deal Pope Francis must be careful not to be used politically as moral cover for what is essentially a prisoner swap.” I suspect the pope is only too willing to be used as moral cover if it helps politicians do the right thing. And, this is more than a prisoner swap and, even if it were not, what is wrong with prisoner swaps?
Rubio was right, and the White House wrong, on one point. There is no evidence whatsoever that increased relations between two countries will lead a repressive regime to change. Nor is there any evidence that increased freedoms in one societal sphere, e.g. the economy, will lead to increased freedoms in other spheres. The Chinese government liberalized its economy decades ago but its political and religious repressions have not stopped. Nominal democratic norms may allow universal suffrage but not upset economic oligarchies.
A final point. One thing was clear in the conflicting statements praising and condemning the actions taken yesterday. All those who objected to any easing of tensions between our two countries appeared focused on the past. But, the importance of this change, the importance of opening Cuba to more exchanges of people and ideas, is forward-looking. When Fidel dies, Cubans will have to think about their country differently. They will have to ask what they want for their future. Having more gringos on the island, more trade with the States, more income, none of that will necessarily lead to a better future for the people of Cuba. But, no country can move forward if it remains defined exclusively by the past. The changes announced yesterday help to remove the burden of the past. That is a good thing.