A Rapier Instead of a Sledgehammer

Why did the U.S. move to engage with the “Castro dictatorship?” Günter Pohl tries to find answers.

“End of an Ice Age,” “The Final Chapter of the Cold War,” “Normalization of Relations,” “End of the Blockade”: these words were written all over international media reports regarding the speech made by Raúl Castro and Barack Obama on Dec. 17. The two heads of state announced the beginning of a new era between the two countries. The U.S. blockade against Cuba has often been reinterpreted as an “embargo” in the media. And while the popular press mentioned the exchange of “three Cuban spies” for a (certainly innocent) U.S. citizen, the joy of the warranted release of the last three of the “Miami 5” stood in the foreground of left-leaning publications in the United States.

Many debates and a month later, in which the Caribbean waters between Florida and Matanzas warmed and once again cooled, talks between Cuba and the United States began in Havana. In truth, the newest developments will have been addressed in already occurring semi-annual meetings. Both sides actually held discussions through government negotiators at irregular intervals repeatedly after the Cuban Missile Crisis ended more than 50 years ago. These discussions usually focused on Cuban migrants who had left the country to travel to the United States. The migrants automatically received residence and work permits from U.S. authorities upon arrival, circumstances that other Latin Americans could only dream of. In the 1990s, this legislation even led to quite a few Latinos disguised as “Cubans” trying to obtain through Florida by boat what was denied them through Mexico by foot. Cuba is interested in having the United States reconsider this, as the dangerous crossing has cost the lives of many people in recent years.

But why would the United States move to change its mind and again involve itself with the hated “Castro dictatorship?” The most probable reason is that outreach for change with Cuba lies somewhere between necessity and strategy. One the one hand, the pressure on Washington from Latin American countries has increased continually in recent years. This stemmed from attempts by the U.S. to knowingly isolate Cuba from regional partnerships. The best example of this pressure is the invitation extended to Havana to attend the April summit of the Organization of American States in Panama. Previously, Cuba’s invitation was suspended at the behest of the United States. On the other hand, the strategy to bring an end to the revolution via blockade blatantly failed. Therefore, it’s no wonder that the latest voices were heard loudly from the ranks of the U.S. Congress, which in allusion to Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, spoke of a “change through rapprochement.”

And that’s the point. The U.S. will leave no stone unturned that could further the end of the Cuban socialism experiment. Along the way, the United States seems to have picked up a clever means of conduct: a rapier instead of a sledgehammer.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries are to be resumed for the first time since the “Bay of Pigs” events in 1961 broke them. According to Cuban negotiator Josefina Vidal, Havana is also aiming to quickly remove the United States from its list of “state sponsors of terrorism.” But Cuba has placed the removal of commercial, financial, and economic blockades, in existence since 1962, at highest priority. The way in which this can be achieved is controversial. Since the blockade has legal support, the House of Representatives must agree in principle for the blockade to be repealed. However, the Constitution gives the U.S. president certain powers to at least ease the blockade. But other government institutions also have some leeway in this matter, since authorization for U.S. financing organizations to open bank accounts in Cuba came into force in the middle of January. Simplification of procedures for travel to Cuba will likewise be implemented, such as the use of MasterCard starting Mar. 1. The order for change has actually been given. What Cubans have had for two years, the citizens of the United States now also have: the freedom to visit “enemy territory.” Quite peaceful.

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