History, seen from Havana

A bit after noon on December 17, 2014, employees of the Museo Castillo de la Fuerza Real climbed the tower of the 16th century fortress, once home to Havana’s governor, to ring an ancient bell. It was an act of spontaneous celebration, reportedly repeated in church towers across Old Havana. The cause of the celebration, of course, was the unexpected news that Cuba and the United States had called for a truce of sorts in a war that most Americans rarely think about, but which casts a shadow on daily life in the Cuban capital.


As a result of fortuitous timing—unfortunately, I cannot claim to have predicted the about-face—I found myself in Havana on this historic day. I traveled to Cuba to participate in the thirteenth “series of conversations” between U.S. and Cuban academics who have devoted much of their lives to studying and trying to improve the dysfunctional relationship. I watched the speeches, first President Raúl Castro’s live and then an unedited, untranslated recording of President Barack Obama’s, in the Superior Institute for International Relations (ISRI). Some of the university’s intrepid students had climbed to the roof to install an impromptu TV antenna after the speeches were announced so we could all watch. During the previous two days of panels on various facets of the U.S.-Cuban relationship, many had sensed the winds of change. However, schooled by decades of resentments, suspicions, fears, and reversals, most of us expected only limited changes to U.S. policy as “deliverables” for April’s Summit of the Americas, and in response to the deteriorating health of imprisoned USAID subcontractor Alan Gross. For this group of experts, diplomatic relations seemed far off. But there it was, in plain English and Spanish, drawing gasps and producing tears.

P1040336 P1040335In the streets of Havana, there was jubilation from some. A group of ISRI students blocked traffic with their joyous march, culminating outside the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Employees waved from the windows, and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez came downstairs to greet the ecstatic youngsters. Their chants, many in praise of the Cuban Revolution and its leaders, also sang: “Come over here, join my march, ‘The Five’ have returned and are at home.” One of their classmates, I was told, was the daughter of one of the “Cuban Five,” the group of Cuban intelligence agents who had been arrested in the United States more than fifteen years ago. Two men had previously been released, having served their sentences; the remaining three came home as part of a trade for a U.S. intelligence asset and the humanitarian release of Mr. Gross.

Official Cuban media, especially the nightly newscast and the following day’s front page of the Communist Party’s Granma newspaper, dedicated more space to the return of “the heroes,” as they are often called in Cuba, than to the restoration of diplomatic relations. This was the inverse of most U.S. coverage. However, it is not entirely surprising. The Cuban leadership has put an incredible emphasis on their imprisonment, which most Cubans with whom I spoke saw as unjust and overly harsh. A bulletin board in the apartment building where I stayed told the “untold story of the five heroes,” as does a large sign in Havana’s airport. Thursday’s Granma was headlined “¡Volvieron!” or “they returned,” in reference to a famous speech by Fidel Castro a decade ago proclaiming, “¡Volverán!” The return of the five was a popular issue; it is worth remembering that Obama is not the only president who faces hardline opposition to less hostile U.S.-Cuban relations.

Cubans welcomed the men’s return. More than anything, though, people seemed to welcome the change in the broader U.S.-Cuban relationship, hoping it would lead to changes in their day-to-day lives, making them a little easier. An effusive tour guide spoke of her children in the United States. People talked with surprising knowledge about U.S. banking restrictions, and the possibility for announced changes to facilitate trade and tourism. Several people asked me about the impact of U.S. laws, the Congress, and whether the next U.S. president could undo what had just been done. No one mentioned Cuban domestic politics in terms of democracy and human rights, though there was no shortage of concern over the Cuban economy. (I did not sense hesitation in what seemed fairly effusive conversations; however, that is not to dismiss limitations on speech and organization, real dangers to dissidents, hesitance to criticize the Cuban government, or concern about what boundary-pushing Cuban comic Rigoberto Ferrera jokingly calls “chivatos” or “tattletales,” but this can be overstated regarding daily conversation.)


Back at the series of conversations, Wayne Smith entered to a standing ovation. Smith, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, had been the first head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana until he resigned in a public protest of the Reagan administration’s policies. Now in his early 80s, Smith had spent the intervening decades advocating an end to the embargo and the release of the Cuban Five. He once famously compared the effect of Cuba on the U.S. government to that of a full moon on a werewolf. Smith exuded the elation of a man who had gotten to see, perhaps despite his expectations, the fulfillment of his life’s work. In this admittedly self-selected group, the announcement created a joyous commotion.


As the surprise faded, discussion turned to the consequences. The immediate U.S. debate has focused on whether a new relationship between the two countries will, in fact, spur rapid democratization on the island. While I also hope for a free press and open politics in Cuba, I worry that is the wrong metric, and one that sparks concerns from many Cubans regarding sovereignty. (To fairly judge the policy by those lights, wouldn’t we have to wait another fifty years?) It is also an area in which U.S. programs, like multi-million-dollar broadcasting operations that, according to the Government Accountability Office, reach almost no one or the types of USAID programs uncovered in recent months by the Associated Press, have been counterproductive.

I would suggest two alternative ways to judge the policy. First, does it advance U.S. national interests? Secondly, does it improve the wellbeing of the Cuban people, broadly defined? Neither of these measures is clear-cut, and the concept of “national interest” is notoriously flexible in the hands of determined policymakers. However, the U.S. national interest must be conceived of in terms that are broader than an isolated look at U.S.-Cuban relations. To misappropriate the words of Senator Marco Rubio, someone who thinks it benefits the United States to have its policies rejected by friend and foe alike by margins of 187-2 might be considered “willfully ignorant of the way the world works.” The issue had, like perpetual control of the Panama Canal decades earlier, poisoned U.S. relations with Latin America. The news broke during a meeting of heads of state of Mercosur, a South American political and economic group, and received an overwhelmingly warm, emotional response. This group included strident U.S. critics like President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and President Dilma Roussef of Brazil, the hemisphere’s second power, with whom the United States maintains an important but uneasy relationship. With an assist from the Vatican, the U.S.-Cuban deal was facilitated by the conservative government of Canada, the United States’ close ally and top trading partner—which is also Cuba’s number one source of tourists and a significant investor on the island. Canada has also been highly critical of Cuba on issues of democracy and human rights but clearly wanted this rapprochement. European allies have been just as eager. For U.S. relations with the hemisphere and the world, changing policy to Cuba is a clear winner, creating space to address crucial issues.

The wellbeing of the Cuban people is no less contentious a concept; for critics in the United States, there can be no improvement in wellbeing while the Castros or their like are in power. Senator Rubio, Senator Bob Menendez, and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen have implied this; the Washington Post editorial page laid out an explicit case. Certainly, Raúl Castro did not undertake this change with the expectation that it would lead to his government’s demise; however, to jump from that point to assume that the Cuban government’s only reason for making this change was survival ignores important evidence to the contrary. Yes, these are leaders who have kept themselves in power for decades, but autocrats have done that without instituting changes that produced huge increases in life expectancy, literacy, and maternal and childhood health, according to the United Nations Human Development report. Political freedoms are an important part of wellbeing, but making them the exclusive focus seems to go against the Cuban people’s desire to live materially richer lives without permanently abandoning their homeland. We should remember, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt did, that freedom is multifaceted, and ask whether this policy change advances different aspects of freedom: of speech and worship and from fear and want.

In this context, “freedom from fear” has often been understood only as fear of the Castro regime. I would suggest, however, that Americans often forget that the United States, too, can be perceived as a threat. In the case of Cuba, this is salient for historically sound reasons, including U.S. occupations and intervention early in the 20th century, a U.S.-sponsored exile invasion, bombings, and assassination plots in the 1960s, and the bombing of a Cuban airliner linked to Cuban-Americans in 1976, killing 73. While the United States might argue these were aimed at the regime, attempts to sow chaos are not bridges to positive ties with the Cuban people. Understanding those perceptions and working to change them will facilitate space for increasingly pluralistic dialogues within Cuba, more about Cuban conditions and less about the United States. This will help freedom of speech; freedom of religion has expanded meaningfully since 1992, and the Vatican’s intervention is likely to bolster that trend.

Freedom from want is clearly on the minds of many Cubans, most of whom live on low salaries and government subsidies, while finding creative ways to get by in Cuba’s shifting economic landscape. A dual-currency system grants those with access to higher-value “convertible” Cuban pesos goods and services beyond the reach of the rest. Some goods just are not available. Infrastructure and housing in many parts of Havana are in disrepair. It is on this account that the policy will ultimately be judged. The fate of the Cuban economy will, and should be, in the hands of Cubans; reducing and eventually eliminating the embargo will ensure U.S. policy is not an obstacle in the Cuban people’s path.

If the change announced last month promotes not just freedom as the United States defines it, but as the Cuban people choose to, appreciation for the United States and the possibilities for cooperation between the two countries are only likely to grow.

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