After nearly half a century’s embargo, President Barack Obama announced the normalization of relations with Cuba. Both countries exchanged prisoners, an exchange achieved by the intervention of Pope Francis.
“To the Cuban people, America extends a hand of friendship… To those who oppose the steps I’m announcing today, let me say that … I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result … Moreover, it does not serve America’s interest or the Cuban people to try to push Cuba toward collapse,” Obama said in his remarks announcing the change in U.S. foreign policy, noting his belief that Cuba’s half century of isolation did not work before and would not produce anything now.
The embargo, which was an economic blockade of an island situated 100 miles from the Florida coast, was announced in 1961 by John F. Kennedy as punishment for the confiscation by revolutionists under the Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara regimes of property belonging to U.S. nationals and worth millions of dollars. At the time, Americans not only lost access to the famous Cuban cigars and rum, but also to Havana, which before the revolution was a favorite resort for American mobsters, gamblers and profligates. In addition to the ban on imports and exports, U.S. nationals could not travel to Cuba for 50 years. Gradually, Americans of Cuban descent were allowed to travel there.
Obama stated that he believed in “the free flow of information,” which would allow the U.S. to promote American values [in Cuba]. Obama emphasized that Pope Francis, who personally took part in talks over many months, played an important role in negotiating the deal.
Obama described the U.S. reconciliation with Cuba as the most important change in U.S. politics in 50 years.
Cubans Free Two American Prisoners
At exactly the same time as Obama was speaking in Washington, President Raul Castro, who replaced his weakened brother Fidel seven years ago, spoke in Havana. He affirmed that ”President Obama’s decision deserves respect.” In Havana, church bells rang and people danced on the streets.
On Tuesday, both leaders spoke for 45 minutes by phone. That evening, three senators flew to Havana to bring back the 65-year-old Alan Gross, a humanitarian aid worker with the U.S. Agency for International Development who was sentenced in Cuba five years ago to 15 years in jail for spying. His crime was that he tried – in violation of a Cuban ban – to install Internet services in a small Cuban-Jewish community. Cubans have no access to the Internet, and only foreigners can use it in the biggest hotels in Havana and Cuban sea resorts.
Along with Gross, Cubans freed an American spy who spent more than 20 years in a Cuban prison (his name and nationality was not revealed) and 53 American political prisoners. And perhaps most importantly, if the deal is honored, Cuba agreed to import telecommunications equipment from the U.S. ”to facilitate Internet access to Cuban people.”
As a further part of the deal, the U.S. government freed three Cuban spies who were caught and sentenced 16 years ago. An American Embassy will be opened in Havana, and the U.S. State Department will consider removing Cuba from the black list of countries supporting terrorism (Cuba was listed there for supporting Basque separatists from [the group] ETA and the FARC Columbian partisans.)
How Much Did Americans Lose Under the Embargo?
Obama announced the opening of a U.S. Embassy in Havana and a reexamination of whether Cuba should be on the American black list of countries supporting terrorism. And Obama annulled those sanctions that he could, pursuant to his executive authority.
An American embargo remains in force because Congress must agree to have it annulled. Therefore, for example, U.S. citizens still cannot travel to Cuba as tourists. But Obama found many ways around this situation. It will be possible to visit family, to travel to Cuba for business and to conduct scientific research, as well as for religious, artistic, humanitarian, sports or medical purposes. And finally, it will be possible to visit to ”support the Cuban nation.” American credit cards will now work in Cuba. Until now, they did not work because all credit transactions were illegal under American law. Americans will be able to legally import Cuban cigars and rum in quantifies not exceeding $100. Even President Kennedy had disliked this aspect of the economic blockade, and prior to the embargo, had ordered the country to stock up and buy 1,000 or 2,000 Cuban cigars while it remained legal.
It is estimated that the U.S. lost $1 million to $2 million annually because of the embargo, while Cuba lost up to $7 million.
The World Saw One of the First Signs of Thaw with Its Own Eyes
For years, Obama planned a new beginning in relations with Cuba, but the main obstacle was the imprisonment of Alan Gross. Obama said last year that the embargo did not make sense, and that the U.S. had to be creative and adjust its policy to the current reality. A few months later, during Nelson Mandela’s funeral, he greeted Raul Castro with a handshake. The American smiled and the Cuban responded likewise. That generated conservative comments on the Internet, such as: ”When the president shakes hands with Castro, Alan Gross clutches prison bars.”* Journalists and experts tried to guess if the pleasant greeting meant something.
Earlier hopes for a thaw in American-Cuban relations were dashed many times. When Obama was elected in 2008, Raul Castro was very positive about him. Castro said Obama looked “like a good man” and declared that Cuba was ready to talk about any subject. However, after Gross was arrested and sentenced, Obama signed the embargo extension each year — the most recent one last September. The last time U.S. and Cuban leaders Bill Clinton and Fidel Castro shook hands at the United Nations session in New York did not precipitate results. Then, however, Cuban immigrants from Florida protested much louder, saying that Clinton ”shook a blood-stained hand.”*
Obama’s historical decision was criticized by the Republican leader of the House of Representatives, John Boehner, and the Cuban immigrant community in Florida.
An outraged Senator Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban refugees who is considered to be a leading Republican candidate for president in 2016, said the White gave everything to the regime and did not gain anything in return. The only thing the regime did was free 53 prisoners whom it can sentence again tomorrow.
Opponents of the thaw may try to block it by not supporting the financing of the embassy in Havana or by blocking the nomination of an ambassador. But it’s not known whether opponents will succeed, because the Republican Party is not unanimous in the case of Cuba; some of them agree with Obama.
*Editor’s note: The quote, while accurately translated, could not be independently verified.