The most recent Cuban revolution, led by Fidel Castro, uprooted the former dictator Batista's regime in 1959. Batista was an early-career reformer in the island's turbulent politics. He was elected its President in 1940-44, after leading a military coup in 1934. He ran for election again in 1952 and usurped power in lieu of electoral defeat. Batista was our kind of dictator ? he kept a brutally tight lid on dissent, made larcenous common cause with the Mafia, and kept the island safe for other US commercial interests, or so we thought.
Castro's July 26th Movement took power on New Year's Day, 1959. They quickly nationalized industries, seized assets and imposed their own brand of tyranny under the Communist flag. The new bosses found an eager Cold War sponsor in the former USSR, which viewed having a protégé pawn only 90-miles off-shore from Miami as an effective counterweight to US bases in Europe and Turkey. The CIA-led Bay of Pigs counter-insurgency later failed dismally ? as JFK rued it: "it was too big to be clandestine, and too small to succeed." The Agency internally dubbed it 'a perfect failure.' It was followed by the Cuban Missile Crisis, in 1962.
Many of us recall that high drama, perhaps as close to the brink of nuclear winter as the world has ever proceeded. For two weeks in October, we were riveted to the news, as the US blockaded Cuba by sea, demanding removal of Soviet missiles and destruction of launch sites exposed by U-2 surveillance. Khrushchev blinked, retrieving his atomic armaments in exchange for a public commitment that the US would not invade the island (and a private assurance that similar American weapons would be removed from Turkey).
Diplomatic relations were severed and an economic embargo had been imposed in 1961. Since that time, there have been a smattering of incidents, but the two countries have remained isolated from each other. Russian and more recent Venezuelan aid has helped keep the Castro regime afloat, but the impoverished country remains suspended in time ? in the mid-20th century.
It came as a surprise this past week that the US and Cuba announced their intentions to re-establish diplomatic relations, and commercial and cultural contacts. Negotiations had been underway for more than a year, aided by the considerable moral suasion of the Pope. The US will open an embassy in Havana, many financial restrictions that hamstring commerce will be lifted, travel will be further eased, and the Secretary of State will review Cuba's designation as a sponsor of terrorism. (There is no current truth to the rumor I'm starting that the A's are destined to move to Havana, although the team's penurious payroll would look pretty good to the locals ? and they do have a bigger stadium.)
The move has been met with popular approval in the States, even among Cuban-Americans, who strongly favor diplomatic relations, and narrowly oppose continuing the trade embargo. There have been fulminations by the likes of Senator Rubio who call it an appeasement, but it's not clear that the new Republican majority will stand in the way.
That may be because of the following factors:
o it's clear that isolation did not have the desired effect of destabilizing the Castro regime, over the full half-century of its tenure. Senator Rubio does make an argument that the embargo was somehow intended to force compensation for those assets seized in the '50s, but that's both historical nonsense and trivial in today's terms;
o it is often true, but not necessarily so, that economic progress leads to popular demands for reforms to broaden liberty interests;
o the US will be in a better position to encourage reforms consonant with freedom via engagement, rather than continued isolation -- as we do with numerous other regimes we'd prefer were differently constituted;
o from a geopolitical standpoint, closer ties with the US benefit both countries, especially when traditional sponsors like Russia and Venezuela are in oil-based economic crises. Cuba has been a burr under the US saddle for a half-century; this is a particularly propitious time to start brushing it out.
I think I've mentioned in these couple hundred blogs that I believe Mr. Obama was influenced in law school by the redoubtable Professor Roger Fisher ? he of "Getting to Yes" fame. The Prez often speaks of people's and parties' "interests," that underlie their "positions" on any given topic. That's classic Fisher-speak. (For negotiation mavens, I think he's been routinely too slow to 'demonstrate his BATNA' by taking executive actions, at least until recently). He did so again this week, indicating that the needs and wants of both countries will be better served by this change of calcified position. I think he's right --- how about you?
Now, if he could only make good on that first-term Guantanamo promise ?