The thawing of relations between the United States and Cuba that has recently come to light is yet another remarkable development under U.S. President Barack Obama’s watch. More so since it has become par for the course for opinions from just about every corner to knock Obama for not reacting aggressively to the many challenging fires that demand attention and resolution from his administration.
Obama has to address not only domestic issues such as recent massive protests over high profile police shootings of unarmed Black youth, anti-Black racism and accusations that he is not doing enough for African-Americans, but also justice for undocumented migrants and, importantly, a still recovering U.S. economy.
There is also the handling of complex foreign policy matters, from calibrating U.S. involvement in the state of affairs in the Middle East as the Islamic State movement spreads, to the crises in Syria and Pakistan, and what to do about travelers entering the country from West Africa, where the fight to stop the spread of the deadly Ebola virus continues, to name but a few.
The relationship between Ottawa and Washington also remains contentious regarding the matter of approval, or rather lack of approval, from the Obama Administration over construction of the Keystone XL pipeline – a priority of the Stephen Harper Conservative government – that would move oil from Alberta’s tar sands through pristine lands in the U.S. to the Texas Gulf Coast.
This latter is further reason for surprise that the rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba, a country run by a Marxist government for more than five decades, had been secretly negotiated through a series of meetings over a period of 18 months, most of them right here in Canada. After all, this procedure would have to have had the cooperation of Canada’s Conservative prime minister.
The surprise rests on a history of Harper’s chilliness toward Cuba. As recently as the Summit of the Americas held in 2012 in Cartagena, Colombia, Harper and Obama were the lone holdouts in a vote to include Cuba in the follow up summit set for spring 2015. Harper argued that only democracies should be allowed to participate.
At that time, however, the PM had said that he did not agree with U.S. embargoes against Cuba. This was in keeping with the relationship Canada has steadfastly maintained with Cuba regarding trade and travel.
The negotiations have therefore resulted in a real turnaround. With images of children cheering in the streets of Havana following President Raúl Castro’s announcement there, Cubans reportedly greeted with jubilation the news of renewed relations with the U.S. and the release of political prisoners. Little wonder, as many there anticipate the stagnant Cuban economy could soon benefit from relaxed, though still limited, U.S.-Cuba travel restrictions. Many foresee growth in Cuba’s tourism sector, meaning more jobs and money in the pockets of Cubans who are greatly in need.
The exchange of high profile prisoners is the most significant sign of the new relationship. Obama also announced the establishment of a U.S. embassy in Cuba’s capitol city, Havana, a change in banking rules to allow use of credit and debit cards in Cuba, and allowing American travelers to import up to $400 worth of Cuban goods.
There is no question that Republicans will push back on this latest development out of the Oval Office. Even so, it is not difficult to believe that the days of the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which strengthened U.S. embargos against the Fidel Castro-led government, are now likely numbered. U.S. polls seem to agree.
With this latest breakthrough, which had been among his 2012 campaign promises, Obama will certainly leave his time as president having made his mark. Obama has moved with force to bring about a national healthcare insurance program in the U.S., he brought soldiers back from Afghanistan, the U.S. economy is seeing a turnaround and now he will normalize relations with Cuba.