Wednesday 21 March 2018

The final thaw in US-Cuban cold front?

While the Castros show little sign of loosening their grip in Cuba, US President Obama's visit this week could spell a new era for the neighbours' relations

Grip and grin: Barack Obama with Raul Castro during the US President's visit to Cuba this week.
Grip and grin: Barack Obama with Raul Castro during the US President's visit to Cuba this week.
John Meagher

John Meagher

It was a sight that would have been considered unthinkable up to very recently: the US President standing on the soil of Cuba and engaging directly with a member of the Castro family, the dynastic dictatorship that has ruled this land for 57 years.

But this week, on a three-day official state visit, Barack Obama stood shoulder to shoulder with Cuba's 84-year-old president Raul Castro - Fidel's younger brother - and spoke about how these sworn enemies could not just put their differences aside, but could become strong allies.

"It's a historic opportunity to engage directly with the Cuban people and to forge new agreements and commercial deals," Obama told employees of the United States Embassy, his first stop in the country, "and build new ties between our two peoples, and for me to lay out my vision for a future that's brighter than our past."

Where once the very presence of a US flag was enough to incite a riot, the stars-and-stripes flew proudly - alongside the Cuban colours - on the presidential limousine as it snaked through the narrow streets of the capital, Havana.

Local Cubans mixed with the mainly Canadian and European tourists to welcome a US President who has done more than any other to restore relations between the two countries. The New York Times noted that shouts of "USA" and "Obama" could clearly be discerned as the presidential cavalcade took in the faded charms of the Old Havana district in the centre of the city.

In a keynote, televised speech on the last day of his visit, Obama said it was time for the United States and Cuba to leave the past behind and make a "journey as friends and as neighbours and as family, together" towards a brighter future.

The president urged them to "leave the ideological battles of the past behind" and to define themselves not through their opposition to the US, but just as Cubans.

Obama's visit is said to be openly welcomed by Cuba's business community, while their US counterparts have made no secret of their pleasure of the opening up of a potentially lucrative new market just 90 miles away from the tip of Key West, Florida. Several business leaders joined the White House visit, including executives from hotel chains Starwood and Marriott. Airbnb were there too and have already reportedly found private rooms for 13,000 Americans.

The Guardian was just one of the media organs covering the visit that warned about the downsides of any tourist boom. "As local historian Eusebio Leal Spengler led the Obamas through the deserted streets," it reported, "the tour also hinted at the dangers of lopsided tourist development that could leave the stunningly beautiful city centre feeling like a permanent theme park if mishandled. At times the tightly chaperoned tour already felt as if National Lampoon's Cuban Vacation had been scripted by over-earnest communist officials."

Obama is the first US president to visit the island since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. Cuba had won independence from Spain in 1902, and American big business moved in quickly. By the time of Coolidge's visit, the US controlled 60pc of the sugar crop - one of Cuba's most important exports.

US interests were helped by the presidency of the pro-American dictator, Fulgencio Batista, and his second term in power was initiated by a military coup conceived in Florida. Batista presided over a country where corruption was rife and where American crime lords flourished. He could rely on military and economic aid from President Harry Truman during the 1950s, but when his power was threatened by a rebel faction led by Fidel Castro, Cuba's president-in-waiting Manuel Urrutia Lleó urged the US to halt arms sales to Batista, fearing an escalation of the situation.

Washington acquiesced to those demands much to the concerns of the US ambassador to Cuba, Earl T Smith, and it was a decision the US would come to bitterly regret when Castro's forces managed to overthrow the government and install a military and economic dictatorship.

Castro's close relationship with the Soviet Union would soon cause panic in the US, and attempts to remove him through economic blockade and counter-revolution - including the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 - were unsuccessful. Several assassination attempts, allegedly initiated by the CIA, also ended in failure.

The hostility did little to cool relations between Castro and the Soviets and his decision to allow them to place nuclear weapons on the island, sparked the Cuban Missile Crisis - a defining incident of the Cold War - in 1962.

With the US having placed nuclear missiles in Italy and Turkey - with Moscow in range - Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev agreed to Castro's request that missiles be deployed to Cuba.

The affair would be the most perilous incident in John F Kennedy's presidency and it was finally resolved after 13 tense days in October when both the US and USSR withdrew their nuclear weapons and the Americans pledged not to invade Cuba other than as a result of direct provocation.

With the world teetering on the brink of nuclear war, a sense of panic could be felt everywhere, including this country. In 2007, it emerged that in the immediate aftermath of the missile crisis, then Taoiseach Seán Lemass had authorised searches of Cuban and Czech aircraft passing through Shannon Airport at the request of the US. Details of searches - including information on passengers - were secretly passed on to American authorities between 1962 and 1970.

While the Cold War faded for much of the world following the collapse of the Iron Curtain in the late 1980s, relations between the US and Cuba failed to improve, not least because Castro remained in power until 2008. Brother Raul has been seen as more open to a cordial relationship with Cuba's big neighbour, although Republican hopeful Donald Trump was keen to point out that the Cuban president snubbed Obama by failing to meet him at Havana Airport.

But since Obama and Castro announced the restoration of relations in December 2014 - to "cut the shackles of the past", in the words of the US president - there has been little doubt that the last vestiges of the Cold War are fading away.

Remarkably, it was Pope Francis who helped foster dialogue between the two men, with the Vatican hosting a crucial meeting.

Dr Jack Thompson, a lecturer at the UCD Clinton Institute of American Studies, says the Obama visit marks a seismic shift in relations between the US and the Caribbean island.

"There has been a long and complicated history between the two countries," he says, "and that has especially been the case since the Cold War.

"For older generations, Cuba - and Berlin, I suppose - was the most likely point of friction that would have led to a nuclear exchange, to World War III. There was a tension there in the early 1960s that is perhaps difficult to appreciate today."

Thompson says those Americans living in the south east of the country, closest to Cuba, felt that tension most. "My father grew up in Florida and I remember him talking about the anti-nuclear tests that would be carried out, the precautions they would have to take in the event of an attack. It was very real to people like him."

No city in the US is as intricately linked to Cuba as Miami. More than one million of its citizens were either born in Cuba before Castro's revolution or are second or third-generation Cuban-Americans. Thompson believes that many older Cubans, traditionally strongly opposed to the Castro regime, are unhappy with Obama's visit but notes that, "younger Cuban-Americans generally see it as a step in the right direction towards normalising relations".

Obama acknowledged the Floridian city in his rousing speech in Havana on Tuesday night: "We have a clear example of what the Cuban people can build - it's called Miami.

"Being self-employed is not about becoming more like America, it's about being more like yourself."

But with the Cuban government reportedly cracking down on dissent and the Castros showing little sign of relinquishing their stranglehold on power, some wonder if democracy is as far away as ever, despite improvement of relations.

Even as Obama was on Air Force One, en route to Havana, arrests were being made among members of the Ladies in White dissident group.

"It's the third law of Newton: The greater the actions for democracy, the greater the repressive reaction by the regime," activist José Daniel Ferrer told the New York Times.

And Cuban journalists still have to work in a far from open environment, according to the newspaper.

"One young reporter who works for a major government news outlet said he and his colleagues had been brought into a room two weeks ago," the paper noted this week, "and reminded that anything posted to social media regarding Mr Obama's visit would result in more than just a slap on the wrist.

"No photographs, no commentary, no interviews with foreign reporters - not even private discussions with friends."

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