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Talking with Castro

For most of the last 50 years, nearly every U.S. president has negotiated secretly with the government of Cuba in bids to resolve the two nations' conflicts
Peter Kornbluh, William M. Leogrande
From the Print Edition:
Cuba, January/February 2009

(continued from page 6)

But the second lesson that each president has learned is that while the Cuban government's interest in improved relations has been unwavering, so, too, is its unwillingness to give in to U.S. demands that it alter its domestic politics and sacrifice its international principles. The sanctity of Cuba's socialist system, as Che Guevara made clear in 1961, is nonnegotiable. The Cubans, as the new administration will discover, are no more willing to negotiate their constitution with us, than we would be to negotiate ours with them.

Third, the quid pro quo approach has never worked because it drags out the process and allows time for complicating circumstances, such as Cuba's involvement in Africa, or the shoot-down of planes from Brothers to the Rescue, or U.S. electoral politics, to torpedo progress.

These lessons suggest a final one—that moving quickly and unilaterally to lay the groundwork for better ties is likely to produce the best results. To the extent that the Obama White House can treat normalization as a starting point, rather than the endgame of changing the U.S.-Cuban equation, concrete advances in bilateral relations will be made. Indeed, that is the conclusion that Jimmy Carter draws from his own failed experience: "I think in retrospect, knowing what I know since I left the White House," he told us, "I should have gone ahead and been more flexible in dealing with Cuba and establishing full diplomatic relations."

That is good advice for President Obama as he settles into the Oval Office. Like Kennedy, who saw the potential for changing the dynamic of relations in the aftermath of the missile crisis, Obama faces a true period of change on the island as Cuba moves firmly into a post-Fidel—and eventually a post-Castro—era. As was the case in the mid-1970s, there are growing domestic and international pressures on the White House to finally unravel "the tangled ball of yarn" that is Cuba policy. With a solid Democratic majority, Congress is moving toward lifting key elements of the U.S. embargo, particularly the prohibitions on travel. The last United Nations vote to condemn the trade embargo was 185-3 (Israel, Palau and the United States), reflecting the condemnation of the international community of U.S. policy as archaic, ineffectual and counterproductive. Finally, Obama's solid victory in Florida, with 35 percent of the Cuban-American community, frees him from the domestic political constraints that plagued so many of his predecessors. Drawing on this advantage and utilizing these pressures, the Obama administration is well-positioned to reconfigure a stagnant, Cold War—era policy that has failed for five decades to meet U.S. goals.

Given the intractable nature of 50 years of hostile U.S. policy toward Cuba, and the sharp political sensitivities surrounding the issue of a dialogue toward better relations, the new president will no doubt be advised to approach this problem like porcupines make love—"very carefully." But the historic candidate who ran on a platform of "change you can believe in" should move quickly to apply that philosophy to a policy problem that has bedeviled no fewer than 10 occupants of the Oval Office before him. With their history as his guide, Obama now has the best opportunity to succeed.

Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive; William M. LeoGrande is Dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University. This article is adapted from their forthcoming book: Talking With Fidel: The Untold History of Dialogue Between the United States and Cuba.

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