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On 17 December, Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced that they would establish normal diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, for the first time since 1961. This was coupled with a prisoner exchange and several measures by the United States to liberalize Americans’ contacts with Cuba. The embargo that has been in place for decades is still in effect as a matter of laws passed by Congress, but President Obama pledged to seek its easing as discussions between the two countries progress. Normalization of relations with Cuba is no doubt the most radical step Obama has taken in a presidency largely marked by caution and incrementalism.

Long after normalization of relations with China and Vietnam, long after the end of the Cold War itself, the Cold War with Cuba has persisted. This is a direct result of Cuba’s proximity to the United States. Leaders and citizens of the United States considered Cuba virtually a state-in-waiting even before our Civil War, a place that could be easily taken from Spain and converted to a slaveholding state of the American Union. Even after the Civil War, imperialists in this country, like Theodore Roosevelt, coveted Cuba, and its conquest in 1898 was the crown jewel of the Spanish American War. We allowed Cuban “independence” only with a stipulation that the U.S. could at any time send forces to maintain order and the security of (American) property, and only with Cuba’s forced consent to the perpetual lease of the naval base at Guantánamo Bay. From the late 1930s until January 1, 1959, Cuba was dominated by a military dictator, Fulgencio Batista, who was a close ally of the United States.

The durability of the rift with Cuba has been reinforced, on the American side, by the presence of millions of refugees and their descendants.

So the rise of Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution was a direct challenge to a U.S. hegemony that had been taken for granted by Americans. As early attempts to remove the revolutionary regime by force or subversion failed, Cuba became a bone stuck in the throat of the U.S. government, through successive administrations from Eisenhower to George Bush II.

The durability of the rift with Cuba has been reinforced, on the American side, by the presence of millions of refugees and their descendants. The earliest refugees, in particular, were militantly anti-Castro and anti-communist; they quickly put down roots (especially in South Florida), and they voted. The Cuban-American community, however, has become steadily more diverse over the decades: it is no longer monolithically right-wing and Republican. In fact, the majority of Cuban-Americans voted for President Obama in 2012.

Isolation from the United States actually served the interests of the revolutionary regime quite well, especially after they secured their alliance with the Soviet Union in 1961. They were far freer under a Soviet umbrella to pursue their program of radical transformation of Cuban society. The Cuban health care system, in particular, has earned worldwide praise for delivering high quality care to all, at low cost. Had they come to terms early with the United States, the Revolution would have been effectively truncated by dependence on U.S. aid, much as the revolution in Bolivia was during the same period.

When the Soviet umbrella folded in 1991, however, Cuba faced hard times. The Castro regime did not fold, but it did adapt: the economy was opened to foreign investment in s tourism and mining, and the population was permitted to establish closely supervised private enterprises. A parallel dollar economy was permitted, even while government employees were still paid in pesos and rationed goods could be bought with pesos. The dictatorship of the Communist Party persisted, but there were episodes of liberalization punctuated by selective repression. Overall, though, Cuban society became somewhat less regimented, especially after the retirement of Fidel Castro and his replacement by his brother, Raúl, in 2008. Since 2000, Cuba has benefited by the provision of Venezuelan petroleum at subsidized prices, as arranged by the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.

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At least since Jimmy Carter, Democratic presidents have sought normalization of relations with Cuba, but were always blocked by a combination of domestic opposition and Cuban authoritarianism. This has been true of Obama up to this point. Now, though, he has a Cuban counterpart who agrees that normalization is in the interests of both countries, he has as much support as opposition from the Cuban-American community, and he has much less need to conciliate a Republican opposition that seeks to block his every move

Obama will still have to seek legislative approval for easing or abolishing the embargo, and any nominee for ambassador will need Senate confirmation. He is thus not fully a free agent. Still, we have normal relations with Russia even though we have imposed sanctions on them. The same is true with Syria today, and was the case with South Africa under apartheid. Diplomatic relations do not presuppose complete agreement.

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Obama should consider another benefit of normal relations with Cuba: the realization of his long-held vow to close the Guantánamo Bay detention facility. Earlier this year, on this site, I made the following argument:

[Obama] needs, instead, to look to his executive authority, as he has done recently on environmental issues. His authority as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces is far more firmly established than that in any domestic policy area.

He could simply order the closing of the detention facility, the transfer of detainees and the entire Guantánamo operation to ships at sea, and the evacuation of the base.

In the course of negotiations on establishment of normal relations, it is perfectly natural for Cuba to demand return of the naval base that the United States unilaterally established after the Spanish-American War. And it is perfectly reasonable for the U.S. to give up a base that no longer has a naval function and serves only to detain people who were illegally tortured and thus cannot be prosecuted.

john peeler

John Peeler