Obama's new Cuba policy is a liberating move for the United States, but it raises new questions for Cuba: What happens to David after Goliath shrinks?
When America was still young, George Washington said in his farewell address: “The Nation, which indulges towards another an habitual hatred, or an habitual fondness, is in some degree a slave.”
That's what President Obama began to address this week when he announced the resumption of diplomatic relations with Cuba — to free the U.S. from its self-imposed shackles. Its policy toward Cuba had long since morphed from an instrument of foreign policy into a domestic policy article of faith. The fact that it produced no change in Cuba, that it harmed U.S. businesses, that it curtailed rights of American citizens wishing to travel to Cuba — all these arguments ran into the stone wall of ritualized hatred toward all things Cuban.
Perhaps that's why Obama's measures had to be so sweeping and symbolically powerful. True, the trade embargo wasn't abolished: That's because the congressional hardliners enshrined it in law so securely that only Congress can lift it, not the president. But every one of the steps Obama took has made headlines, whether it was the prisoner exchange, the resumption of diplomatic talks, the easing of travel restrictions, or Cuba's removal from the list of nations that sponsor terrorism.
Obama has disarmed the escalation practices of the past. But in the meantime, the challenges faced by the Cubans are far greater because for the cadre of leaders in Havana, hostility toward the United States is absolutely essential. It's what forms the central pillar of their legitimacy. There can only be one party because another party would be used by the imperialists to destroy the Cuban Revolution. Opposition politicians are mercenaries of the United States and dissenters are a “fifth column.” There can be no pluralism in the media because the war against American imperialism demands tightly closed ranks.
The Questions Go Deeper for Cuba
The old guard in Miami will grumble for a while and the Republicans will act out their anti-Castro and anti-Obama urges, but businesses are hoping for new markets and more pressing problems will pop up from Idaho to Virginia. And in Florida, the majority of Cuban-Americans will go to the polls in 2016 not caring whether there's a new embassy in Havana or not.
The questions go deeper for Cuba. They go to the identity of the political system that arose from their revolution, and this at a time when Cuban society has long since left the friend-or-foe mentality far behind. They have cousins, aunts or brothers that live in the United States and who send them money from time to time. They know what the Internet is and what goods are advertised on Miami television and they root for the Cuban-born stars that play in the U.S. major leagues.
Raúl Castro addressed the Cuban people wearing his general's uniform and harangued against the embargo still in place. He emphasized the release of the Cuban five in his speech, not the resumption of Cuban-American diplomacy. That was meant as a show of strength, but in reality it was just whistling past the graveyard. Where's the logic of maintaining the illusion of a fortress under siege when the enemy is no longer besieging it? What will happen to David after Goliath has dried up and blown away?
There's no doubt the regime in Havana can chalk this up to a political win. After 50 years, it's the U.S. government that has backed off, not the Cubans. But maybe Obama didn't give in as much as he freed America from its prison of hostile petrification.
Havana still has that experience coming.