Sunday, November 18, 2007

U.S.-Cuba relations: time for change

Nova Scotia News - The Chronicle Herald - Canada

By PETER MCKENNA and JOHN M. KIRK

Sun. Nov 18 - 9:00 AM

On Oct. 30, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour (184 to 4) of a resolution that called upon the United States to repeal its economic embargo against Cuba. This can only be seen as another major setback for Washington.

George W. Bush is the 10th U.S. president to vow to bring about regime change in Havana, and so far the record is zero and 10. Moreover, it has been 45 years since the world came within a blink of a nuclear confrontation during the Cuban missile crisis.

The more things seem to change in the world, the more they stay the same in terms of U.S.-Cuban relations. For almost 50 years now, the thrust of U.S. policy toward Cuba has remained largely static – that is, confrontational, isolationist and vitriolic in nature.

Even though it has failed to undermine Fidel/Raúl Castro’s rule, decision-makers and political leaders in Washington can’t seem to bring themselves to recognize this reality. You would think someone might suggest, after five decades of muddling through, that an alternative policy approach toward Cuba would be in order.

Instead, we get more of the hard-line and tough-talking approach of President Bush – with a reference to "a socialist paradise in a tropical gulag." During his recent comments at the U.S. State Department, he also mentioned "a new era" and again promised to adjust his administration’s hostile Cuba policy by providing new scholarships for Cuban youth, computers with Internet access, and an international "Freedom Fund" to support Cuban reconstruction under a democratic government.

But as the succession process in Cuba continues, the U.S. government still remains mired in a Cold War-like time warp. Why exactly does the Bush White House believe that tinkering with a hard-line policy toward Cuba is going to work any better than it has for the past 50 years?

It seems strange that Cuba is still considered a communist enemy of the U.S. and a major rights-abusing state, even though the United States has openly courted an economic relationship with China. Relations are even warming with Moammar Gadhafi’s Libya (especially now that Bush has eased economic sanctions and moved to upgrade diplomatic relations with the oil-rich country), not to mention continued U.S. engagement with Vietnam, while Cuba remains on the State Department’s list of terrorism-supporting countries.

For a host of reasons, not the least of which is the electoral significance of the state of Florida (and its nearly one million Cuban exiles), the United States can’t seem to get past its deep-seated antipathy toward Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

At the September meetings of the UN in New York, President Bush singled out Cuba for criticism. "In Cuba, the long rule of a cruel dictator is nearing its end. The Cuban people are ready for their freedom." Clearly angered by these public comments, Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque walked out of the General Assembly hall.

This shopworn approach of no bilateral interaction and no dialogue that has characterized the U.S.-Cuba relationship needs to come into the 21st century. Neither country benefits from the hostility, acrimony and aggression that has plagued relations since the early 1960s.

During the Ford and Carter administrations, secret talks did take place between the two sides and some progress was made in normalizing bilateral relations. Agreements were signed in the areas of fisheries, airline hijacking, family reunification, and the release of Cuban political prisoners.

President Bill Clinton worked to establish a series of low-key confidence-building measures in the 1990s, such as U.S. and Cuban coast guard collaboration, advance notice of military training exercises around the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo, and the sharing of information on search-and-rescue missions.

It makes no sense for the two sides not to speak to one another. Cuba has diplomatic relations with just about every other country – including many of Washington’s friends and allies.

The countries share common interests in patrolling the waters around southern Florida and Cuba for drug interdiction purposes; in protecting endangered species like migratory birds and their shared environment; in negotiating procedures and processes for Cuban migrants who enter the United States; and in exchanging information on weather, health epidemics and civil aviation.

It is time for Cuba and the United States to begin engaging one another diplomatically just as they do economically (with almost $2 billion in U.S. agricultural products being exported to Cuba in the last three years).

It is long overdue for the U.S. economic embargo – which has failed to topple the Castro government since its imposition in 1961 – to be rescinded (along with the Helms-Burton Act). For their part, the Cubans will need to come to the negotiating table with a reasonable financial package to compensate for the nationalization of U.S. businesses in the 1960s.

In the past, Havana has indicated its willingness to enter into such discussions. And Raúl Castro has already said (on three separate occasions) that he "has always been ready to normalize relations on the basis of equality." So far, silence from official Washington.

No one is suggesting here that this engagement, confidence-building and dialogue will fix the U.S.-Cuba relationship overnight. But at least Washington and Havana should allow the process to begin. Indeed, the time for real change is now.

Peter McKenna and John M. Kirk are professors at the University of Prince Edward Island and Dalhousie respectively, and the authors of the forthcoming book, Fighting Words: Competing Voices Over the Cuban Revolution.

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