With Differences Overcome, the Conflict Continues

Ever since Raul Castro´s government openly accepted the idea of a prisoner exchange between Alan Gross, a contractor for the U.S. Agency of International Development, and three Cuban security agents imprisoned in North American territory, the lock that could open the door to the re-establishment of relations between the United States and Cuba was unbolted. The call to soften the embargo and normalize diplomatic ties arose in the ’90s after the disappearance of the Socialist bloc, but the Helms-Burton law of 1996, which placed the embargo under the legislative authority of Congress, postponed those expectations.

The Democratic defeat in the midterm elections, which took place this past Nov. 4, ironically gave President Obama more autonomy in foreign policy. Thanks in good part to the intervention of the Vatican, Canada, and two senators — Democrat Tom Udall and Republican Jeff Flake — the president decided to utilize the prisoner exchange to recast relations between both countries.

Without touching the legal core of the embargo, Obama announced a series of measures, including re-opening embassies, increasing remittances, and authorizing U.S. companies to operate on the island that constitute a milestone in the history of this hemisphere.


Raul Castro and Barack Obama spoke on the telephone on Dec. 16 and programmed two simultaneous messages to their nations and the international community. If there is one thing that both leaders made clear, it is that despite the normalization of relations, the conflict between the two countries is not over.

Washington and Havana clearly maintain their differences, which are based, in short, on antagonism inherited from the 20th century. The United States will not stop defending democracy and respecting human rights, and Raul Castro´s government will not abandon its historic objective: to maintain a one-party state and a Marxist-Leninist ideology, which is synonymous with independence or sovereignty.

Neither the embargo nor the historic tension between the U.S. and Cuba will be quelled, but the diplomatic stalemate, which has gone alongside this conflict since 1960, seems to have reached its end. When President Dwight Eisenhower called to consult Ambassador Philip Bonsal, on Oct. 20, 1960, the U.S. and Cuba dispensed with diplomatic channels and entered into a prolonged, irregular war. Some months before, the Cuban government had expropriated the majority of North American businesses on the island and re-oriented its international relations in favor of the Soviet Union and the Socialist bloc. From the first months of 1960, in fact, Fidel Castro dared to challenge not only the United States, but also the inter-American system by initiating a growing military collaboration with the Soviet bloc, something that would not take long to bring the hemisphere to the brink of nuclear war two years later.

If it was difficult to imagine that the North American refineries processed Soviet oil, which the Cuban government claimed, it was even more difficult to believe that the U.S. would keep its arms crossed in the face of a geopolitical and military alliance between the Soviet Union and Cuba. The breakdown between Washington and Havana was not a response to historical necessity, as the official history of the island has tried to claim, but it did become inevitable after Cuba´s involvement in the Soviet bloc. Since 1992, when the Socialist bloc began to disappear after the fall of the Berlin wall, the theoretical and practical bases of the breakdown and of U.S. policy toward the island have changed.

Since those years, in academic, legislative and State Department circles, various proposals to lessen the embargo and normalize diplomatic actions between the two countries have been considered. If in 20 years nothing like what President Obama announced on Dec. 17 has been accomplished, it will be due to the unrelenting opposition to the Fidel Castro philosophy, the uncompromising and orthodox bureaucracy of the island, and the Cuban-American political class.

The Torricelli and Helms Burton laws and the sanctions implemented by George W. Bush´s government, such as the Antidote Law, and the island government´s repression of peaceful opposition were the greatest forces of resistance to the political change that the post-Soviet era demanded.

A New Battlefield

What is clear is that the end to this dispute does not represent the end to the conflict, but rather its transformation and even propagation, and that the Cuban-American political class is already mobilizing to boycott the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. From both houses of Congress, from now on, we will see numerous obstructions to the thawing of the bilateral relations.

We will also see how diplomatic normality will very soon convert into a battleground between the government of Raul Castro and that of Barack Obama — and especially his successor. Like the current “Interest” section, the next embassy, in addition to being one of the most crowded places of Havana, will continue to be seen by the state as a threatening place that feeds the island´s democratization.

The atmosphere, clearly in favor of the understanding between the U.S. and Cuba, that is observed in Latin America could be ephemeral or misleading. Very soon, in forums like those of the next Summit of the Americas in Panama, we will see the ideological confrontation re-assert itself among the continent´s inter-American majority, which gambles at once on democracy and autonomy and on good relations with the U.S. and Cuba, and the ¨Bolivarian¨ minority that feeds, both politically and symbolically, on the disagreement between the two Americas.

The end of the diplomatic dispute between the U.S. and Cuba finally closes an epilogue of the Cold War in the Western Hemisphere. But the conflict will continue, as long as a one-party state, national control of civil society and the media, and a steady repression of peaceful opposition persist in Cuba.

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