Ay, Cuba. The media tend to ignore you, until they can't anymore.
That certainly happened when President Obama announced the U.S. would seek to normalize relations with Cuba after a hiatus of more than half a century. It was a plot worthy of Graham Greene, involving spies in Havana and Miami, secret negotiations in Canada, and even divine intervention from Pope Francis. As a novelist, I wish I had come up with these characters myself: crusty Alan Gross, the USAID "contractor" who kept mum at his press conference; and his shadowy doppelgänger, Rafael Sarraf Trujillo, the "intelligence asset" who said even less.
No one saw it coming, and it was breathtaking. Obama and Raul Castro spoke for 45 minutes, which hasn't happened since Nixon met with Fidel in 1959. Just like that, the U.S. and Cuba, if not yet friends, are no longer enemies. Frenemies, perhaps? The Cold War in the Caribbean was finally over, much to the dismay of hardliners like Sen. Marco Rubio, who accused Obama of being the worst negotiator since Jimmy Carter. Rubio must have forgotten who negotiated the Camp David Accords, just as he forgot when his parents left Cuba.
Coño, as we say. But for all the drama, the sky didn't fall down. The camera crews predictably headed for the iconic Versailles restaurant in Miami's Little Havana, but even there the reaction was muted. The crowd at Versailles comprises mostly Cubans over 60. Their American-born grandchildren were eating sushi in Coral Gables and following the news on Facebook. And in Havana, the people interviewed on the Malecon merely shrugged. They've seen this movie before.
Because once we caught our breath, we saw that it wasn't that big a deal. The release of Gross was a humanitarian gesture, and spy exchanges like Trujillo for the WASPs are nothing new. We already have a de facto embassy in Havana, as do the Cubans in Washington. Cuba certainly can't afford to sponsor terrorists, so its removal from that list was long overdue. The exemptions to the travel ban have been in place for several years, now. Just about the only concrete change is that American visitors will be able to use credit cards (I had to carry around wads of cash on my last trip) and can now bring back Cuban cigars.
And as diplomatic deals go, it wasn't bad. Obama's concessions were largely symbolic, and the embargo is still very much in place, and likely to remain so under a hopping-mad Republican Congress. Normalization of relations will be a step-by-step process that will depend on Cuba holding up its end of the bargain, which includes more economic reforms and less political repression. The ball is very much in their court. For once, Washington has seized the initiative with Havana.
But it's a tremendous gamble, because it could all go south if the Castros misbehave, as they have in the past, to a Republican chorus of "I told you so." Obama is not the first president to try and patch things up and get egg on his face. In the '70s, Gerald Ford tried it until Cuba sent troops to Angola. Carter's overtures were met with the Mariel boatlift. In the '90s, Bill Clinton negotiated through Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Fidel's own frenemy, and the result was the downing of the Brothers to the Rescue plane. In reality, the embargo has always played into Castro's hand and helped him keep his iron grip on the island. He's gleefully scuttled every U.S. attempt to end it.
Will this movie end differently? Ailing, 88-year-old Fidel and his brother Raul, spry at 83, are not gamblers but chess players, always thinking several moves ahead, and the game has just begun. Just before New Year's Eve, Cuban police arrested dissident Yoani Sanchez' husband Reinalso Escobar, as well as activist-dissident Tania Bruguera, who founded the #YoTambienExijo (I Also Demand) campaign. "No es facil," Obama admitted. The president may have gone out on a limb, but his cautious, wait-and-see approach is the correct one moving forward. The road to normalization will be a bumpy one.
What is new is the opportunity for an honest, clear-headed conversation about the future of U.S.-Cuba relations, on both sides of the Florida Straits. Here, U.S. interests will no longer be dictated by Cuban exiles, since Obama not only ignored intransigent Republicans like Rubio but also loyal Democrats like Sen. Robert Menendez. And in Cuba, the Castros won't be able to blame the U.S. for all their economic woes, such as chronic shortages of toothpaste and toilet paper.
If the media can no longer ignore Cuba, perhaps they can attempt to understand it. Most of what is written utterly misses the mark, distorted by political bias, exile nostalgia, and woeful ignorance of Cuban history before 1959. Pundits are often amazed there's no consensus among Cuban Americans on the embargo. But when have we ever agreed about anything? The ongoing argument between my generation (I'm in my 50s) who grew up here, and that of my parents (in their 70s) who came from Cuba, bores my teenaged sons. They're applying to colleges with study-abroad programs in Cuba. It's hard to understand a place you've never been to, and they want to see it for themselves. That should apply to journalists, as well.
Much of Washington still eyes Cuba through the keyhole of the Cold War, though the relationship between the two countries goes back much further than that, and there's so much more to see. No doubt the tired debate over whether engagement leads to democracy will go on and on. But if we deal with China and Vietnam, why not Cuba? The American obsession with Castro was inexplicable to the rest of the world, which has always judged our policy as hypocritical and vindictive. If Cuba is no longer David, and we're no longer Goliath, can we get along? Time will tell.
Beyond the Beltway, Americans have always wondered why so much fuss is made over such a small country. Yet we Cubans know. That sad, fateful island will continue to hunt and haunt us, cause us to laugh and cry, inspire us to write novels, and make us long to return to a place we've never been. Someday we'll all go back to Cuba.
This post is part of a Huffington Post blog series called "90 Miles: Rethinking the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations." The series puts the spotlight on the emerging relations between two long-standing Western Hemisphere foes and will feature pre-eminent thought leaders from the public and private sectors, academia, the NGO community, and prominent observers from both countries. Read all the other posts in the series here.
If you'd like to contribute your own blog on this topic, send a 500-850-word post to email@example.com (subject line: "90 Miles").