A New Dawn in Cuba

It took 53 years, but this was worth waiting for.


HAVANA, Cuba — President Barack Obama has finally cut the Gordian Knot of U.S.-Cuban relations that none of his 10 predecessors could manage to untie. For weeks, rumors have been swirling around both Washington and Havana that some new initiative was in the works. But even optimists expected that, at best, it would involve an exchange of the three Cuban spies of the “Cuban Five” still in prison in the United States in exchange for USAID subcontractor Alan Gross in jail in Cuba. No one imagined the scope of what Obama and Raúl Castro announced.

The prisoner exchange, which also included a Cuban who spied for the CIA and the release of a number of Cuban political prisoners, proved to be just a small part of Obama’s package of policy changes. As with immigration reform, Obama chose to make full use of his executive authority to recast U.S. policy rather than just make an incremental adjustment. In fact, he did almost everything he could without having to rely on Congress. And in so doing, he changed the whole framework of U.S.-Cuban relations, just as Richard Nixon did when he went to China in 1972. As with China, the new policy does not by itself solve every outstanding issue, but it signals a clear, dramatically new approach.

Many of the initiatives Obama announced have been discussed in foreign policy circles ever since his 2008 election, when he promised a “new start” in relations between Washington and Havana. Relaxing travel restrictions will no doubt increase the number of U.S. residents traveling to the island — a number that already exceeds 400,000 per year, making the United States the second largest source of foreign visitors (behind Canada).

Allowing commercial trade with Cubans in the private sector will boost the growth of private business in Cuba and significantly increase the cross-border economy. Cuban-Americans have already been able to finance private business on the island through remittances and gift packages, an economic injection that amounts to more than $2 billion dollars a year. Now, trade will be open to all U.S. exporters.

Removing Cuba from the terrorism list — the likely result of the review Obama has ordered — will open the door to deeper bilateral cooperation on counternarcotics, counterterrorism, and other law enforcement issues. In the coming months, we can expect a series of agreements on issues of mutual interest — drug trafficking cooperation, disaster preparedness, and coast guard search and rescue — which the two sides have been discussing recently.

But the most dramatic and unexpected element of the new policy is the promise to resume normal diplomatic relations after 53 years. Opening an embassy in Havana will crack the door to broader discussions on a range of other issues. But much remains to be done. Tourists still cannot legally travel to Cuba, and U.S. firms and companies cannot invest on the island. Trade with state enterprises, which still make up the bulk of the economy, is still prohibited.

No doubt the president will face a tough time getting Republicans in Congress to cooperate with his new policy. Senator Marco Rubio immediately denounced the policy as a disgrace and House Speaker John Boehner blasted it as well. And Obama’s eventual choice to be ambassador to Cuba will no doubt confront a bitterly hostile Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But the Constitution gives the president the power to send and receive ambassadors, so whether the Senate allows Obama to send a particular ambassador to Havana or not, normal diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba will be restored.

Fully normal economic relations will take a bit longer. Obama said he would work with Congress to remove the entire embargo, but that will require amending the 1996 Helms-Burton act that wrote the embargo into law. However, if congressional Republicans resist, Obama can use his executive authority again to license even broader trade and investment.

Coming as it does just a few months before the summit of the Americas — the first such gathering that will be attended by Cuba — Washington’ s new overture will win Obama wide praise in Latin America, revitalizing a regional policy that has been in disarray. Voices of support will also be heard from around the world, echoing Pope Francis, who praised Obama’s decision immediately.

I was attending a conference of U.S. and Cuban academics here in Cuba when I heard the news that Presidents Castro and Obama would address their nations simultaneously. The audience of hundreds erupted in prolonged, spontaneous applause. And after the announcements were made, Cuban students marched in the streets in celebration and church bells rang all over the city of Havana. After the long night of hostility, a new day has surely dawned.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

William M. LeoGrande is coauthor with Peter Kornbluh of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.