Cuba: Barack Obama, While Repairing an Anomaly from Another Time, Has Probably Made the Most Emblematic Decision of His Presidency

This post originally appeared at Opera Mundi

With the respective release of the American Alan Gross and three Cubans, Havana and Washington have opened a new era of rapprochement.

More than half a century after January 3, 1961, when diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States were ruptured, the two governments have announced a process of normalization of bilateral relations. Both Havana and Washington have responded positively to a request from Pope Francis, who urged them to set aside their differences, differences that date from another period, and to restore the links between the US and the Cuban peoples. Contacts between the two sides were facilitated by the Vatican and Canada, both of which offered the two delegations the discretion necessary for a dialog that lasted nearly a year and a half.

Exchange of prisoners

After months of secret negotiations, Cuba and the United States reached a historic prisoner exchange agreement that opens the door to the full normalization of relations between the two nations. Havana decided to release Alan Gross, a US agent imprisoned since December 2009. For providing material support to various sectors of the Cuban opposition as part of a State Department program intended to bring about regime change on the island, Gross had been sentenced to 15 years in prison. Cuba also released another US agent, Rolando Trujillo Sarraff, who had been incarcerated for almost twenty years, as well as some fifty other prisoners.

For its part, Washington released three Cuban agents, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino and Gerardo Hernández. Since 1998, the three had been serving sentences that ranged up to life in prison for having infiltrated small groups of Cuban exiles involved in terrorist attacks against Cuba. The details of this exchange were finalized on December 16, 2014, in a historic 45 minute telephone call between the Cuban and the US presidents, the first such official contact since 1959. With their respective gestures, Raúl Castro and Barack Obama have lifted the main obstacles to the establishment of peaceful relations between the two countries. [1]

The end of an outdated and counterproductive policy

On December 17, 2014, during a televised speech, President Obama informed the United States and world public opinion of his decision to restore diplomatic relations with Havana, "Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba. [This is] the most significant change in our politics for more than 50 years [2]."

The US president made a clear statement about US foreign policy. By continuing to apply cruel and anachronistic measures which date back to the Cold War, measures that affect the most vulnerable sectors of the Cuban population and which, moreover, are counterproductive since the goal of overthrowing the Cuban government has not been achieved, Washington has been unanimously condemned by the international community. "We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests. We will begin to normalize relations between our two countries," said Barack Obama.

The United States' hostility vis-à-vis Cuba has completely isolated it on the international stage. At the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly in October, 2014, for the 23rd consecutive year, 188 countries voted against the sanctions the US imposes on the Cuban population. Similarly, the United States is the only country in the Americas that does not have normal diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba. Latin America, very sensitive to the Cuban question, also expressed its desire to invite the island nation to the next Summit of the Americas meeting in April 2015 in Panama, even threatening to boycott the meeting if Havana is once again excluded.

Obama reiterated this fact: " other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions [and] neither the American nor the Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born. [...] So I decided to put the interests of our two peoples at the heart of our policy. [...] After all, the last 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It is time for a new approach."

According to the White House, "US policy towards Cuba has isolated the United States from its regional and international partners, constrained our ability to influence outcomes throughout the Western hemisphere, and impaired the use of the full range of tools available to the United States to promote positive change in Cuba [3]." John Kerry, Secretary of State, shared this view saying that "not only has this policy failed [...] it has actually isolated the United States instead of isolating Cuba" [4].

Restoration of dialogue and easing of economic sanctions

Washington has decided to restore the diplomatic relations with Cuba it had unilaterally broken off in 1961. Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, will visit the Cuban capital in January 2015 to formalize the opening of an American embassy. Both nations have expressed their willingness to cooperate on issues such as health, immigration, the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking as well as the establishment of a common response to natural disasters. [5] "I look forward to being the first secretary of state in 60 years to visit Cuba," Kerry said in a prepared statement. [6]

Washington also decided to review its list of the countries it considers to be supporters of international terrorism. Cuba has been included on this list since 1982. In so doing, Obama is responding to the demand of the international community and several American congressmen who consider this inclusion arbitrary at the very moment when Havana's mediation of the peace process in Colombia is being hailed around the world.

The White House has also decided to ease restrictions on travel to Cuba by US citizens. Although ordinary tourist visits remain banned, cultural, religious, academic, scientific, sports and health professionals as well as humanitarian groups will receive favored treatment. Furthermore, Americans will now be able to use their credit cards in Cuba.

Additionally, limits on remittances from US citizens to Cuba will increase from 500 to 2000 dollars per quarter and US citizens will be allowed to import goods from Cuba in the amount of 400 dollars. Commercially, the range of exportable products -- currently limited to basic food commodities -- will be extended to other sectors such as construction equipment, agricultural equipment and telecommunications. In so doing, Washington is responding to a request from US business interests that wish to invest in a natural market that is barely 150 kilometers off the Florida coast.

Financial transactions in dollars will be facilitated and US institutions will be permitted to establish relations with Cuba. US entities located abroad may also establish commercial links with the island and conduct financial transactions in dollars. Similarly, the section of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which imposes a six-month ban on entry into US territorial waters by any foreign ship traveling to or from Cuba will be removed, if the trade carried out with the island is of a humanitarian nature.

President Obama also called on US lawmakers to adopt the necessary measures for the lifting of economic sanctions. Since 1996, only Congress has the power to put an end to the state of siege imposed on Cuba.

Reaction of Havana and the international community

Cuban President Raúl Castro welcomed the restoration of bilateral relations with the United States, recalling that Cuba had always affirmed its willingness to resolve disputes amicably. "Since my election, I have repeatedly expressed our willingness to support a respectful dialogue, based on sovereign equality with the government of the United States in order to address a wide variety of topics of mutual interest, without prejudice to the national sovereignty and self-determination of our people," he said. He also took the opportunity to welcome the decision of President Obama, a decision that "deserves respect and recognition." Nevertheless, he recalled that economic sanctions, "causing enormous human damage," should be lifted. "We must learn the art of living together with our differences in a civilized manner," said President Raúl Castro. [7]

The international community has welcomed this historic rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, an accord that puts an end to more than half a century of conflict. The Vatican expressed its "great satisfaction". Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, congratulated both parties and expressed his willingness "to help both countries to develop good neighborly relations" [8].

Latin America has unanimously welcomed this historic moment. Mercosur, through the voice of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, congratulated Washington and Havana for this "fantastic" news [9]. José Mujica, President of Uruguay, expressed his excitement: "At the Latin American level, this resembles the fall of the Berlin Wall, but from the other side. Throughout the history of mankind, commercial blockades have served only to hurt people but have never resolved anything"[10]. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, President of Argentina, paid tribute to "the Cuban people and its government for initiating a process of normalization of relations with the United States with absolute dignity and on an equal footing." Meanwhile, Nicolás Maduro, Venezuelan President stressed the "courage" of Barack Obama. [11]

The Organization of American States also expressed to Washington and Havana its satisfaction "for taking this historic step, so necessary and courageous, to restore relationships broken off in 1961". José Miguel Insulza, secretary general, said that "the measures announced today open a path toward normalization and there will be no turning back." He urged the US Congress to adopt the legislation necessary to permanently lift the economic sanctions. [12]

By responding to the call of the international community and public opinion in his own country to restore relations with Cuba, President Obama has probably made the most emblematic decision of his two presidential terms and repaired a fault that dates from another time. History will remember him not only as the first black person to reach the highest office in his land, but also as the one who accepted the olive branch proffered by Cuba, an action that paves the way for the establishment of constructive bilateral relations. It is now time for the United States to put an end to an economic siege imposed since 1960, to allow Americans tourists to discover the island, and to accept the reality of a different Cuba -- with its virtues and faults -- but independent and free to choose its own social model.

Translated from the French by Larry R. Oberg.

Doctor of Iberian and Latin American Studies at the University of Paris IV-Sorbonne, Salim Lamrani is a senior lecturer at the University of La Réunion, and a journalist specializing in relations between Cuba and the United States.

His new book is Cuba, the Media and the Challenge of Impartiality, New York, Monthly Review Press, with a foreword by Eduardo Galeano. Translated by Larry R. Oberg.

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[1] The White House, "Obama's Speech: Charting a New Course on Cuba", December 17, 2014. (site accessed December 17, 2014)
[2] The White House, "Obama's Speech: Charting a New Course on Cuba", December 17, 2014. (site accessed December 17, 2014)
[3] Ibid.
[4] John Kerry, "Statement by Secretary Kerry: Announcement of Cuba Policy Changes", US Department of State, December 17, 2014. html # axzz3MC4Z8Upx (site accessed December 17, 2014)
[5] The White House, "Fact Sheet: Charting a New Course on Cuba", December 17, 2014. http: // -new-course-cuba (site accessed December 17, 2014).
[6] John Kerry, "Statement by Secretary Kerry: Announcement of Cuba Policy Changes", op. cit.
[7] Raúl Castro, "alocución del Presidente Cuban : Los Cinco están en Cuba," Cubadebate, December 17, 2014.
[8] Le Monde, "Une 'rectification historique' qui ne contente pas tout le monde", December 17, 2014.
[9] Opera Mundi, "Dilma diz achar 'fantástica' reaproximaçao de Cuba EUA e lembra de port Mariel" Opera Mundi¸ December 17, 2014.
[10] Cubadebate,
[11] Telam, December 17, 2014.
[12] Organization of American States, "Secretario General de la OAS celebra 'anuncio histórico' de reanudación de relaciones diplomáticas entre Estados Unidos y Cuba", December 17, 2014. .asp? sCodigo = C-557/14 (site accessed December 17, 2014).