In what can only be seen as an important victory for Cuba and a rebuff to U.S. policy toward the island nation, on the last weekend in January the Community of Latin American and Caribbean states (CELAC), meeting in Santiago de Chile, elected Cuba to the presidency of the organization and handed the chairman’s baton to Raul Castro, who was present at the meeting. Further, a large delegation of European leaders, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was also present, giving Cuba’s presidency move added momentum and relevance. All this points up again the need for the U.S. to change its isolated and outdated policy toward Cuba.
But until now, the U.S. has taken the position that it will take no step to improve relations with Cuba until Alan Gross, the USAID contractor imprisoned for “actions against the Cuban state, ” is released. The Cubans needless to say would expect some quid pro quo and hint that the U.S. should in return release the Cuban Five. The release of all five is unlikely, however, especially as one, Gerardo Hernandez, however unfairly, is in for life for “murder,” accused of having been involved in the shoot down of the Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996 (though there is not a shred of evidence against him).
Some U.S. officials have given the impression that the Cuban position is set in stone, that the U.S. must release all five or there is no deal. A Johns Hopkins delegation in Cuba recently, however, found this not necessarily to be the case. Cuban officials with whom we spoke indicated that even the question of an exchange for Gross is certainly open to negotiation.
And what of Alan Gross himself? He is certainly not innocent of any wrongdoing, as the U.S. maintains. He was distributing sophisticated communications equipment in clear violation of Cuban law and memos that have surfaced make it clear that he was working (however unsuccessfully) to undermine the Cuban government. But there is no blood on his hands and he is guilty on no heinous crime.
There is no reason, in short, that imaginative diplomacy and negotiations could not lead to the release of Alan Gross and open the road to improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba. And certainly this is in the interest of the U.S., given that its present Cuban policy is rejected by the rest of the world and leads nowhere. Every year when the vote on the U.S. embargo comes up in the UN General Assembly, the vote is overwhelming. One or two tiny island nations in the Pacific may vote with us, and always Israel. But however it votes, Israel is one of Cuba’s most active trading partners. It votes with us but it too rejects our policy. We are alone.
None of this is reflected in President Obama’s statement of January 30 suggesting that Cuba is living in the past and should change. But in fact it is changing. Some 52 years have passed since we broke relations with Cuba. It is no longer the ally of the Soviet Union. It is no longer trying to overthrow other governments in the hemisphere and thus now has diplomatic relations with all of them. And it is moving toward a more open economic system. The world has changed, as has Cuba. Only our policy remains frozen in time. It is long since time to change it. And we could certainly do more to encourage Cuba in the right direction through engagement rather than continued efforts at isolation.
And perhaps there is hope. In his January 30 statement, President Obama said that he could foresee improved relations during his second term if Cuba meets him half way.
And Josefina Vidal, a senior Cuban Foreign Ministry official, replied that the U.S. could “count on the willingness of the people and government of Cuba to work to advance bilateral relations.”
Let us hope they both mean what they say.
Wayne S. Smith was the Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana (1979-82) and is now an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C.