The US President in Cuba


WEB DESK: After nearly a century, 88 years to be exact, has an American President landed in Cuba – on a visit to bring to a closure the Cold War animosity so intense at times that once it brought the world to the edge of a nuclear war. Cuba still remains Communist, and the United States still remains adamant to change its system, but now through a “soft-war”, a brainchild of President Barack Obama who arrived in Havana on Sunday on a three-day visit. Quite like President Calvin Coolidge, he too intends to win hearts and minds of the Cubans, who appear to be equally eager though their government is not yet ready.

His host, President Raul Castro, would like Americans to normalise socio-economic relations, without predicated by compromise on his political system – and he would also like them to return the part of the island now housing the infamous Guantanamo Bay prison. The over half a century old US economic embargo remains in force, which President Obama wants to be lifted but the Republican party-dominated Congress is opposed to it, thereby suggesting that total normalisation is not yet in sight. However, the kind of welcome Barack Obama, who is accompanied by his family, received in Havana, amply demonstrates that the Cubans want the Americans to come and be their guests.

The Old Havana, a UNESCO-declared World Heritage site, has been painted bright, with welcome boards strung on the faces of historic buildings and popular bars. Strangely, and unlike other Communist countries, the people of Cuba have never been xenophobic and inward looking. Even during the height of the Cold War, they were not suspicious of foreigners – and foreign direct investment – in Cuba. This is indeed a trait of Cuban character that a former Canadian diplomat, retired ambassador John Graham, portrays in his ‘Whose Man in Havana?’ – a kind of parody of Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana”.

Posted in Havana in 1963 as a junior diplomat, Graham was tasked by the American CIA to find out if Cuba was still hosting missiles on its soil in contravention of the US-USSR understating following the missile crisis. He travelled through the countryside trying to locate missile sites. But none suspected that an American-looking person was on an espionage mission; in fact, they treated him as a tourist who had just lost his way. Not only will Obama have a meeting with his counterpart during his visit, he will also address live on television and meet the anti-government segments of society. That is a measure of openness of Communist Cuba. Reportedly, the Cubans are excited to see ‘history being made’ and they wish ‘this should have happened a long time ago’.

President Obama’s visit is rich in symbolism and substance. Symbolically, it turns the page on a bitter past that obtained for over half a century between the two countries, often precipitating highly explosive situations. Sometime after taking the reins of government, by ousting the American stooge Batista, the young revolutionary and new head of state of Cuba, Fidel Castro, was invited by American newspapers, but when he expressed desire to meet his counterpart Eisenhower, the request was denied.

Then, there were attempts by the US agencies to assassinate him – sometime by an exploding cigar and sometime by toxic coffee. When all this failed the trained Cuban exiles were landed at the Bay of Pigs, only to be decimated. In 1962, in response to American bombing of Cuban airfields, the USSR agreed with Fidel Castro to locate nuclear missiles in Cuba. The US ordered a naval blockade of the island, the violation of which by Soviet Union meant a nuclear clash. Nikita Khrushchev pulled back, telling President Kennedy “If there is no intention to doom the world let us take measures to untie the knot”. And, in return the US President agreed to “quietly” withdraw nuclear missiles from Turkey.

That is history now, though Cuba would still insist that if the United States wanted to work for a “new era of bilateral relations” it would be possible only within the framework of the UN Charter, the Principles of Proclamation of Latin America as Zone of Peace and respect for equality of sovereignty. Given that the Obama visit during his lame duck year is said to be motivated by his wish to leave a mark in history and that for this he has been influenced by Pope Francis’s letter to him and to Raul Castro, any tangible progress on the road to bilateralism will await the outcome of the US presidential election.

But there is no such constraint on Cuba’s evergreen relationship with Pakistan. Even when Islamabad was very closely aligned with the Western Camp, its relations with Havana were warm and productive. When the earthquake struck Pakistan in 2005 the government of Cuba sent in some 2,600 doctors, physicians and paramilitary staff who established field hospitals and provided on-site health services. And last year, when the rice crop in Cuba failed, Pakistan dispatched 15,000 tons of rice as assistance. Therefore, we see no reason why President Obama’s visit will not be result-oriented and a step towards peaceful and productive US-Cuba relations.

Source: Business Recorder