US-Cuba: From Words to Action

On Jan. 21, a new phase in the negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba regarding the restoration of full diplomatic relations began in Havana. Diplomatic ties were broken off more than a half century ago in reaction to the Cuban revolution, which attained victory on Jan. 1, 1959 under the leadership of the young, charismatic leader Fidel Castro. In response to the revolution, the United States imposed a strict economic embargo on Cuba, which inflicted enormous harm on the country, but it survived, relying to a significant degree on the invaluable help of the Soviet Union, and then, Venezuela.

And then, on Dec. 17, President Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced plans to dispense with the abnormal situation and indicated their readiness to establish full ties. Obama then uttered the key phrase expressing the core rationale of the decision, saying, “It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse.” This news was a sensation to the broader public; however, a narrow circle of analysts and experts were informed that over the course of the previous 18 months, intense negotiations between the two sides were happening behind tightly closed doors. Taking part in these negotiations were emissaries of Pope Francis and representatives from Canada. In addition, it should be added that another time, former President Jimmy Carter, a vocal champion of establishing relations, visited Havana. Other similar actions took place, but these efforts turned out to be futile. Nevertheless, they gradually prepared the ground for today’s historic decision.

In the wake of the sensational radio and television announcements, an American delegation came to Havana, headed by the Democrat Patrick Leahy. The delegation was composed of six people, representing a wide spectrum of states. The guests had a full program. Among other things, they visited with the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Agriculture, who expounded upon their views regarding the prospects for bilateral relations. In addition, the visitors met with dissidents and the head of the Catholic Church, the Archbishop Jaime Ortega. Overall, the guests were satisfied with the results of the visit, having promised to fully support the strengthening of ties in various fields. By the way, Leahy had visited the island a month ago, when Cuba freed American citizen Alan Gross, who had been accused of “undermining the territorial integrity of the state” and had been sentenced to a long prison term. After freeing Gross, Cuba released him to his homeland as a gesture of goodwill.

It goes without saying that the American delegation was composed of representatives of only one party. The rival Republicans have emerged as ardent opponents of Obama’s initiative. The main thrust of their argument is that all of this plays into the hands of the current regime, helping it consolidate its grip on power; therefore, it all plays into the Castro brothers’ hands. The most consequential such position is maintained by Sen. Marco Rubio, who aspires to the White House. He has more than a few active and influential supporters, who are ready to block the administration’s new initiatives.

The supporters of establishing relations with Cuba have their own arguments. They argue that the time has come to begin a new phase, insofar as they’re convinced of the counterproductive results of the previous approach. The American president spoke about this open test in his annual address to Congress on the eve of the next stage of negotiations. Before all else, he urged legislators to lift the embargo on Cuba. The U.S. “extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people,” said the head of state, adding that he considers it essential to close the notorious Guantanamo prison. “We’ve worked responsibly to cut the population of [Guantanamo] in half. Now it’s time to finish the job. I will not relent in my determination to shut it down,” he continued.

This was said before a high-level meeting in Havana, which started on Jan. 21 and continued two days. The delegations were headed by experienced diplomats, both women. Representing the U.S. was Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, and Cuba was represented by Director of the U.S. Division in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Josefina Vidal. Note that Ms. Vidal fluently speaks English, French, and Russian. She defended her dissertation at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

On the agenda of talks are issues such as the opening of embassies, softening of the visa regime, and also details of a purely technical nature. Despite the lack of congruence on a range of issues and the existence of natural difficulties, the two sides expressed satisfaction with the results of the meeting. It was emphasized that the meeting took place in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

Because the normalization of Cuban-American relations caused such a huge stir throughout the world, mass media reacted to the event, including in our country. Along with positive evaluations, doubts were expressed regarding whether these changes would negatively affect relations with Russia. On this score, a clear position was expressed by Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov. He uttered the key phrase, saying that Russia welcomed the rapprochement between Washington and Havana, and that he believed that it would not inflict harm on the “strategic relations” between Cuba and Russia. Simultaneously, the head of the diplomatic department observed, “We hope that, in making such a decision the U.S. is guided by its own national interests,” and not by intent to harm Russia. He added that the process turned out to advantageous in equal measure for both Cuba and the USA.

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