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We're Finally Friends with Cuba Again

Obama will announce today that the US and Cuba are "normalizing" relations for the first time in 50 years.

by Grace Wyler
Dec 17 2014, 4:54pm

Photo by Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photo

After 50 long years of a pretend war, the US and Cuba are finally making up. On Wednesday morning, the White House announced that the US will restore full diplomatic ties with the island nation just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, and open up an embassy there for the first time since Dwight Eisenhower was president.

The surprise deal comes after 18 months of secret negotiations, reportedly brokered by Canada and Pope Francis. Obama said he spoke to Raul Castro on the phone Tuesday and that they finally agreed to put aside their differences. By this morning, relations had already begun to thaw, with Cuba releasing international aid worker Alan Gross, who has been held in prison there for the past five years, on humanitarian grounds. Separately, the US returned three Cuban spies convicted on federal charges in 2001 in return for two American intelligence agents who have been imprisoned in Cuba for decades.

"Today, the United States is taking historic steps to chart a new course in our relations with Cuba and to further engage and empower the Cuban people," the White House said in a statement Wednesday. "We are separated by 90 miles of water, but brought together through the relationships between the two million Cubans and Americans of Cuban descent that live in the United States, and the 11 million Cubans who share similar hopes for a more positive future for Cuba."

Obama announced the changes in remarks from the White House Wednesday. stating that US policy of isolating Cuba—and trying to push the Castro regime to collapse—hasn't worked. "This policy has been rooted in the best of intentions," he said. "It has had little effect."

"We will end an outdated approach that has failed to advance our interests," Obama went on. "Neither the American nor the Cuban people are well-served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born."

Practically speaking, the most immediate change will be the establishment of a US embassy in Havana, and a re-initiation of diplomatic talks between the US State Department and Cuban officials. According to senior administration officials, the current US travel ban won't be lifted immediately, although restrictions will be loosened for certain types of travel to the island, changes that the White House claims will make it easier for Americans to provide business support for Cuba's nascent private sector.

The US will also ease banking restrictions, allowing US businesses to open up financial accounts, unblocking US accounts for Cuban emigres, and loosening limits on remittances. Significantly, the new order also authorizes certain business exports—including consumer communications devices and software—with the aim of connecting Cubans to the internet and spurring private industry growth on the island.

And yes, the changes will also make it legal to import Cuban cigars, or at least a few of them (US travelers won't be able to bring back more than $100 of tobacco and alcohol products).

The foreign policy logic behind the Obama's decision is pretty clear. Obviously, the US approach to Cuba hasn't loosened the Castros' hold on the country, and it definitely hasn't made the island a nicer, freer place to live. The Communist regime has been remarkably resilient against US attempts to undermine the Revolution, from the Bay of Pigs to more recent efforts, like USAID's botched plans to build a "Cuban Twitter" and hire Serbian club promoters to co-opt the island's rap scene. After so many years of failure, the Obama administration seems to have decided that giving Cuba a taste of American money and cell phones and Google will be a more effective way to foment democracy.

Unsurprisingly, most Republicans don't agree. GOP Senators were outraged by the surprise deal, which they see as appeasement of the Castro government. ""Today's announcement initiating a dramatic change in U.S. policy toward Cuba is just the latest in a long line of failed attempts by President Obama to appease rogue regimes at all cost," Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, whose parents are Cuban immigrants, said in a statement. "Appeasing the Castro brothers will only cause other tyrants from Caracas to Tehran to Pyongyang to see that they can take advantage of President Obama's naiveté during his final two years in office," he said.

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a loud foreign policy hawks, tweeted that "this is an incredibly bad idea."

At least one powerful Democrat agreed. New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, another fierce critic of Cuba, slammed Obama's announcement Wednesday, saying that the move to normalize relations "vindicated the brutal behavior of the Cuban government.

The posturing indicates that Obama will definitely be in for a fight over Cuba when Republicans take control of Congress in January. But interestingly, the issue doesn't necessarily fall neatly along party lines. In his speech Wednesday, Obama praised a "bipartisan" group of lawmakers who had taken part in the secret diplomatic negotiations, a group that likely includes Senators Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), who traveled to Cuba Wednesday to bring Alan Gross home.

Still, given the intense opposition among GOP leaders, it seems unlikely that Congress will act to remove the Cuban trade embargo—something that will likely come as a disappointment to the island's communist ruler. In his own remarks Wednesday, Castro said that the normalizing of relations was a first step toward lifting trade sanctions, and promised to push the US to end its trade restrictions.

"We have agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations, but this does not mean that the main issue has been resolved, the blockade that generates economic losses and humanitarian problems in our country must stop," he said, according to TeleSur, adding: "Cubans have courageously shown that, despite the adversities, the Cuban people is committed to the Revolution."

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