It is apt that Barack Obama should be the first American president for five decades to meaningfully address the Cuban embargo.
After all when he became the first black president of the United States, voted into power on two occasions, he did so on the watchword of change. Cuba is in a constant process of change, as its politics slowly adapt to the needs of Cuban residents in the 21st century who are still struggling under the effects of a crippling economic embargo.
This is very much a case of right president, right time, and Obama believes that the majority of the American and Cuban populations endorse his decision. Speaking after his historic meeting with the Cuban leader Raul Castro on April 11, Obama said: “If you keep on doing something for 50 years and it doesn’t work, you should try something new.”
Obama acknowledged that concerns and questions remain where human rights are concerned, yet maintaining the embargo is clearly of no benefit to anyone and the biggest surprise is that it has lasted so long. The Cold War thawed a long time ago and the Soviet Union no longer exists – yet Cuba has remained a relic of that perilous time, as antiquated and precious as the classic cars that fill its streets.
There is now a policy of US engagement with Cuba, which contrasts sharply with a previous US foreign policy of pretending that the country did not exist. While many details remain to be ironed out, (Obama admitted that he has been on the road and had not had time to read the finer points of the state sponsor of terrorism list), the historic handshake between Castro and Obama is a watershed moment which will open up commerce and trade with Cuba.
There is still a long way to go. Obama admitted that Cuba and the US have very different visions of how societies should be organised. He said that although the US did not hold itself as an example of how to behave perfectly, there were universal principles relating to democracy and human rights for which Americans would continue to stand.
However yesterday’s summit and talks are clearly a long overdue step in the right direction. Their outcome will go far beyond even the US-Cuban relationship and have a profound effect on the thinking of Latin American leaders, making it a ‘turning point for the entire region’.
Like ships being blown by the trade winds, it is too early to say which route the US-Cuban relationship will take. However one thing can be sure – the winds of change are blowing towards Cuba stronger than at any time in the last 50 years.
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