At this point, it is unremarkable to say again that the meeting between Barack Obama and Raúl Castro during the Summit of the Americas in Panama is a historic milestone. Clearly it is, and it has consequences for the whole continent, because it changes the nature of the relationship between Latin America and the United States, giving the relationship a new tone. And it throws the last shovelful of earth on the Cold War and its high-sounding rhetoric.
If the understanding between the two countries continues to progress, there are two ghosts that seem destined to return to their graves, namely, anti-imperialism and anticommunism, although we will keep hearing their cries. The extreme right of the tea party in the United States and the 21st century champions of socialism among us are going to stir up these ghosts as long as the uproar can bring them political gains.
Raúl Castro’s well thought out phrase exonerating Obama for past imperialist aggression, and his characterization of Obama as an “honest man,” is complemented by Obama’s own phrase, when he said: “I believed that our nations had to break free from the old arguments, the old grievances that had too often trapped us in the past; that we had a shared responsibility to look to the future and to think and act in fresh ways…This shift in U.S. policy represents a turning point for our entire region.”
It is a promising rapprochement, but in order to make it irreversible, some of the expected steps will have to be taken right away. This would open up the way for a continued easing of the restrictions of the blockade, and if Obama’s successor in the White House comes from the ranks of the more radical Republicans, they will not be in a position to turn back.
The argument of those who oppose this ongoing understanding is that the government of Cuba is not giving much on its part, while all the concessions are being made by the United States. But, for its part, the fundamental concession that Cuba is hoping for is the lifting of the blockade. It is well known that this is not in Obama’s hands, and there is a lot of road to cover from here until there is a majority in favor of this measure. Raúl Castro already knows this, and that is why he has insisted that there has to be a lot of patience.
A lot of patience. When human rights and civil liberties in Cuba are being discussed, it is not mere concessions that are being spoken of, but matters that concern the nature of the political system: the power of a single party, the control of civil society, and the monopoly on the communications media. Here is where Raúl Castro has shown himself to be intransigent in affirming that Cuba will not change its political system, and then everything looks like a dead end.
But it’s not dead ends from here on out. Obama, who is nearing the end of his last term and wants his opening with Cuba to be a visible part of his presidential legacy, has on the other side of the negotiating table a historic leader of the Cuban revolution who is more than 80 years old, and who has himself announced that he will not seek another term as head of the regime. Raúl Castro represents a generation that is on its way out. So there will necessarily be a regime change in Cuba, with new leaders who are not related to the Castro family. Whether these new leaders will pay attention to the political orthodoxy and adhere to the idea of the single party remains to be seen.
All of this is probably being planned in the minutest detail so that successors won’t stray from the party line, and they will continue to tolerate opening up economically, but not opening up politically. But history has shown repeatedly that the future can’t be forced to fit a pattern. Once a generation disappears, neither from the tomb nor from the deathbed can it control the events of tomorrow, which don’t depend on a will preserved in formaldehyde, but on an infinite number of factors that collide and intertwine—new conceptions of the world order, new necessities, new realities, abrupt changes in political environment—the old dialectic that always goes back to its old ways.
Generational change becomes decisive in breaking down barriers, leaving intransigence to the older generation, and this will be true for Cubans outside of, as well as within, Cuba; those who live on the island and those who live in Florida. The young never want the past handed to them on a plate to be repeated endlessly. They have their own idea of the future which breaks out of the ideological straitjacket, above all in a country like Cuba, where they have demonstrated creativity in so many ways, beginning with the arts–film, music, literature, painting—and without a doubt in the economic sphere, as entrepreneurs, ever since the operation of small businesses was authorized, and they have learned to navigate the waters of private enterprise in ways that were once prohibited.
On the other hand, there is the geographic proximity that has played an essential role, though often negatively, in Cuba’s modern history. Pointing out, if our memory serves us well, that Cuba and the United States are just 90 miles apart, became a recurrent theme in the discourse of the two parties during the Cold War; the rulers of the United States indicating the danger of having a communist country so close to the mainland, and the Cuban leaders showing their pride at having carried out a revolution right under Uncle Sam’s nose. Today, in lifting the barriers, this closeness will doubtless be a positive factor.
This is why this meeting in Panama between the rulers of two countries which have so long been at loggerheads is historic. It is because this meeting has unlocked the doors of the future, which will without a doubt be something new.