Vatican Radio Interview: Cuba and the USA

"If the United States is ready to establish relations with Cuba based on international law, there will be no obstacle to reconciliation between the two countries."

Blandine Hugonnet
Vatican Radio

Interview - US President Barack Obama arrived in Cuba on Sunday, March 20, 2016, in order to ratify the rapprochement between Washington and Havana. This was a historic visit, the first by a sitting US president since 1928. Diplomatic relations between the two countries had resumed in the summer of 2015.
Recently, the United States relaxed their measures on trade restrictions and travel. But the thorny question of the economic embargo remains: For now, Congress refuses to lift it. This was an issue discussed at the meeting between Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro. For his part, the US President wishes to break with the current policy of isolation vis-à-vis Havana, which he considers to be obsolete and sterile.

Salim Lamrani is a lecturer at the University of La Réunion, and a specialist in relations between Cuba and the United States. He reflects on the issues raised by that visit. Salim Lamrani was interviewed by Blandine Hugonnet.

Blandine Hugonnet: What does President Barack Obama's visit to Cuba signify?

Salim Lamrani: It signifies the recognition of the Havana government and the existence of the Cuban Revolution. It is also a recognition of the failure of a hostile policy toward Cuba conducted by the United States for more than half a century, whose approach has changed since the famous statement of December 17, 2014.

BH: How was the United States' policy toward Cuba ultimately a failure?

SL: The US has imposed economic sanctions on Cuba for over half a century. These sanctions are the main obstacles to the development of the country and affect adversely the most vulnerable population groups, namely the elderly, sick children and women. The initial goal was to end the Cuban revolutionary process, to overthrow Fidel Castro and isolate Cuba. Today, the result is the exact opposite as the US finds itself isolated within the international community on the issue of economic sanctions. In October 2015, for the 24th consecutive year, 191 of 193 countries voted in favor of lifting the sanctions. Even Washington's most loyal allies demanded an end to a policy that dates back to the Cold War and is no longer relevant.

BH: What process led to this appeasement between the US and Cuba?

SL: The Cubans have always demonstrated their readiness to maintain normal relations with Washington, provided that the principles of international law are respected. These primarily include sovereign equality, reciprocity and most importantly - it's something that Cubans take very seriously - non-interference in internal affairs.
It is important to recall that the dispute between Washington and Havana is asymmetric. This is not bilateral hostility. It is the United States that has imposed sanctions on Cuba and demanded a regime change.

BH: What was the significance of Pope Francis in the resumption of relations?

SL: The Vatican and Pope Francis played a decisive role in the rapprochement between the two countries. In the historical statements made by President Raúl Castro and President Obama, both were keen to emphasize the positive and constructive role of the Vatican. Pope Francis played a mediating role that was fundamental. With his authority, his prestige and his willingness to find a peaceful solution to this conflict, he built a political dialogue and diplomatic bridge between the two nations. Cubans are very grateful. As are US citizens. We need to recall that the majority of the American public supports the resumption of normal relations between the two countries.

BH: President Barack Obama leaves office this year? What is his purpose in reviving the dialogue? What is his strategy?

SL: I think President Obama wants to go down in history as the person who adopted the most constructive policy toward Cuba and who corrected an obvious anomaly. It was indeed curious to witness the degree of separation between two peoples so close, Cubans and Americans, separated by only 150 kilometers. These are two populations who share the same history, the same geography and have many cultural elements in common. Cubans are highly influenced by the culture of the United States. President Obama has heard the call of the international community and his own citizens and adopted a position that is appreciated worldwide.

BH: What will the consequences of this warming of relations between the United States and Cuba have on the two peoples?

SL: It is undeniable that the half-century old political dispute between Washington and Havana has broken the spiritual bond between these two peoples. It has also greatly influenced a Cuban society that has been forced to live under this siege. I believe that this dialogue will allow US citizens to discover Cuba and Cubans to reconnect with their neighbors.
From an economic point of view, if President Obama manages to end the sanctions, the main obstacle to the island's development will have been lifted and Cubans will benefit from a better material standard of living.

BH: Do you believe this resumption of dialogue to be viable and sustainable?

SL: It all depends on the will of the United States. I insist again on the asymmetrical nature of the conflict since it is Washington that imposes sanctions on Cuba. Cuba is ready to have normal relations with its Northern Neighbor as long as its independence, its social model and its political system are respected. If the United States is ready to establish relations with Cuba based on international law, there will be no obstacle to rapprochement between the two countries.

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 lecturer at the University of La Réunion, and a journalist specializing in relations between Cuba and the United States.

His new book is Cuba, parole à la défense !, Paris, Editions Estrella, 2015 (Preface by André Chassaigne).
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