US/Cuba: Finally!

Finally, because the latest international news has been so depressing toward the end of this 2014 year that any bit of good news brings much-needed relief. But also, and especially, because the blockade against the Cuban regime that lasted for more than half a century is so anachronistic that cars from the ‘50s are still driving in the streets of La Havana …

Lots of things have changed since 1962, the year during which the embargo was implemented. The Soviet Union, which supported the Castro regime, no longer exists. The Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall about a quarter of a century ago.

Deprived of subsidies from Moscow, Cuba found itself facing a dilemma that the current president, Raul Castro, has echoed in these words, “We reform, or we sink.”

He chose the first option, little by little loosening the grips of the state-run economy. During my last reporting from Cuba, seven years ago, the private sector was still practically nonexistent, exit visas were rarely given, and there were shortages of essential commodities.

Ever since he succeeded his sick brother, Raul Castro has progressively opened the doors to private investments, liberalized travel, and announced the abolition of the double monetary system that created two classes of citizens — those who had access to “convertible pesos” and those who didn’t.

The regime has also started economic negotiations with the European Union, and made room for individual liberties.

Cuba is still far, very far, from democracy. In an article from last year, the great expert on Cuba, Julia Sweig, described the new Cuban model as a “public-private hybrid,” freer than before, but still letting the Communist Party have a monopoly in the political arena: not exactly the Chinese model, not a democracy either, but a country where citizens can breathe a bit more — and hope for a life that might be a bit better.

These changes that the regime presents as “an update of the Cuban socio-economic model,” were gradually implemented, but to the Cubans, just the fact that they can leave the island more easily, and legally, is equivalent to a revolution.

While the country made some moves,“Washington remains more frozen in time than Havana,” writes Julia Sweig. Think about it: Guitarist Ry Cooder was charged a hefty fine for having created the disc “Buena Vista Social Club” — the great worldwide success — with Cuban musicians! It’s hard to better illustrate the absurd ruthlessness against a country that no longer threatens anybody, except, of course, its dissidents of decades.

Yesterday, Barack Obama put an end to this absurd lack of progress.

Even if he does not officially end the embargo, his change of heart makes American-Cuban relations a reality in the 21st century. The restoration of diplomatic relations, lifting of numerous restrictions on travel to Cuba, removal of the country from the list of states supporting terrorism, possibility to use American credit cards on the island, all are concrete and symbolic measures marking the beginnings of normalization.

Why now? Well then, without a doubt because Barack Obama leads a race against time to strengthen his political legacy, with two years to the end of his last term.

But today, if today he can touch the embargo that has been taboo, it’s because American society has also changed, and that support for the policy of isolating Cuba is in free fall.

As contested in The New York Times, in an editorial piece published in October, the generation of Cubans who fled the island in the ‘60s to live in the United States is dying. That generation clung fiercely to the hardline policy toward Havana.

Polls show that today, the Cuban-American community of Miami leans slightly toward ending the embargo. However, a more significant majority of Cuban-Americans want to restore diplomatic relations with Havana.

The shift announced yesterday mainly targets objectives of domestic policy, emphasizes the Quebec political scientist, Graciela Ducatenzeiler, an expert on Latin America. However, it also helps the objectives of Washington on the international stage to soften its relations with its Latin American neighbors. And finally, it puts an end to this hypocritical policy that would allow it to make deals peacefully with China — the other enemy of the Cold War era that continues to persecute its opponents — but not with Cuba.

While waiting for the final lifting of the embargo — this relic of a past century — yesterday’s announcement is good news for the Cubans, for the United States, and for the whole American continent.

Canada played a key role in this long, overdue development, and that, too, deserves to be highlighted.

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