Jan 6th 2015

Obama’s Cuban Breakthrough

MADRID – Too frequently, leaders become hostages, rather than shapers, of their sociopolitical environment. Too seldom does the world see history-changing steps like Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1972 or Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in 1977.

That is why conflicts like that between Cuba and the United States persist for so long. For more than a half-century, no US president was willing to pay the political price for admitting failure and resuming diplomatic relations with the island. But, as his tenure enters the home stretch, Barack Obama seems to have been released from such constraints.

A US president can challenge political constraints only by taking on powerful lobbies. President Jimmy Carter’s success in mediating the Israeli-Egyptian peace settlement, and his bold call for a “Palestinian homeland” (making him the first US president to do so), had much to do with him being deaf to Jewish voices and organizations. Likewise, President George H.W. Bush could not have dragged the recalcitrant Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to the Madrid Peace Conference in October 1991 had he not been willing to take on what he described as “some powerful political forces” made up of “a thousand lobbyists on the Hill.”

Obama is no stranger to pressure – and opposition – from interest groups. But, with the end of his presidency in view, he finally seems to recognize that securing his legacy requires overcoming not just interest groups, but the structure of interest-group politics in America. He is now at loggerheads with the Republican congressional majority over his landmark climate-change agreement with China and his controversial amnesty plan for illegal immigrants.

Likewise, if Obama still hopes to be remembered as the redeemer of the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he will have to take on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee next. This would represent a departure from early in his presidency, when, in his bid to broker a settlement, he failed to confront AIPAC. Perhaps his effort to change America’s Cuba policy – which means challenging the highly disciplined lobby opposing the rule of Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl – will show the way.

In the meantime, normalizing relations with Cuba could have far-reaching benefits. Throughout Latin America, Cold War-era resentment of America is likely to ease, and its standing may improve in countries like Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and especially Venezuela, which has been a Cuban ideological satellite and the Castro regime’s major economic lifeline. Indeed, it would be unsustainable for Venezuela, nearly bankrupt owing to falling oil prices, to remain on its anti-American course, while the Castro brothers themselves have reconciled with the “gringos.”

Conspicuously, Latin America’s last Marxist insurgent group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), declared a unilateral cease-fire just hours after the announcement that the US and Cuba would restore diplomatic ties. Over the last two years, Cuba has hosted peace negotiations between FARC and the Colombian government, with full US support. As the world’s biggest consumer of illicit drugs supplied by Colombian producers, the US has a vital interest in a peace deal, which could help reduce, if not end, the traffic.

To be sure, though America’s policy toward Cuba has been one of the Cold War’s last vestiges, Obama’s move will not be a game changer in America’s competition with China and Russia to shape the new world order. But it certainly boosts Obama’s international credibility and improves his prospects of deterring other global rivals. Suddenly, his tough line on Iran and Russia sounds more credible.

Cuba also offers an opportunity to expand the reach of Western liberal values. By maintaining Cold War-era financial subsidies to Cuba, Russia has tried to ensure that the island remained a geopolitical flashpoint, as it was for the Soviet Union. This is no longer an option. In fact, even if the US were not attempting to normalize relations, Russia’s current economic woes probably would have doomed its long-standing – and already much-reduced – support for the Castro government.

Normalization of relations with the US is key to liberalization in Cuba. After all, such changes are best served not by imposing stifling sanctions, or through military “shock and awe” tactics, as in Iraq, but by socioeconomic improvement and diplomatic engagement by external powers.

Indeed, predictions that Cuba might now shift toward a Chinese-style model of political autocracy and economic opening might be accurate only in the short term. In the longer term, the end of the Castro era, together with improved relations with the US, is likely to bring about a repeat of Spain’s transition toward full-fledged liberal democracy after the fall of Francisco Franco.

In Cuba, Obama has shown that transcending the politics of confrontation and sanctions requires diplomatic initiative. It is not too late for him to address other longstanding tensions, such as with Iran and North Korea – not to mention the festering conflict between Israel and Palestine – with similar boldness. And, of course, he should work to mitigate the risk that Russia creates a permanent zone of military tension along its borders with NATO.

Ultimately, world peace is in the hands of leaders. History honors those who dare to challenge the politics of inertia by opening, through inspired diplomacy, new paths to progress.




Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
www.project-syndicate.org




  

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "China’s recently published census, showing that its population has almost stopped growing, brought warnings of severe problems for the country. “Such numbers make grim reading for the party,” reported The Economist. This “could have a disastrous impact on the country,” wrote Huang Wenzheng, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing, in the Financial Times. But a comment posted on China’s Weibo was more insightful. “The declining fertility rate actually reflects the progress in the thinking of Chinese people – women are no longer a fertility tool.” "
Jun 12th 2021
EXTRACT: " I remember recounting fellow leaders of the story of a Rwanda schoolboy caught up in the genocide of the 1990s and now immortalized in the Kigali Genocide Memorial museum, where, in a section devoted to children, one can find his photograph and a plaque that reads: ----- David, age 11 ...... Ambition: to be a doctor ...... Favorite sport: football ...... Favorite hobby: making people laugh ...... Death: by mutilation ...... Last words: the UN are coming to save us ----- In his idealism and innocence, David believed the international community would save him and his mother. We didn’t. "
Jun 8th 2021
EXTRACT: " While many conservative Republicans opposed Trump and saw that he posed a danger to their party and democracy itself, they were hesitant to buck the mass movement they had created, fearing that it would turn against them. Some of these same conservatives assumed that with Trump's defeat, the horror of January 6th, and the former president's banishment from social media, the time had come to restore sanity to their party. But the GOP leadership’s continued cowering in the face of what they now call "Trump's base" has caused them to circle the wagons and purge their ranks of those who call for sanity. "
May 26th 2021
Editor's Note: This article is about the Federal Reserve, inflation in the 1970's, and possible similarities to today.
May 25th 2021
EXTRACT: "Netanyahu claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people. He certainly is not. Many Jews around the world, including me, despise Netanyahu’s racist politics. As an American, I am also deeply troubled by the US government’s knee-jerk support of Israel. Fortunately, I am not alone in this view. A growing number of Democratic Congressmen, Jews and non-Jews alike, have called on the United States to stop supporting Israel’s lawlessness. The truth is that the US government’s uncritical support for Israel has come to depend more on evangelical Christians, such as former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, than on American Jews, who are deeply divided by Netanyahu’s actions. And the evangelicals’ real interest in Zionism is not Jews’ security, but Armageddon, the end of the world, which they believe will come only when all Jews are in Israel."
May 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "This period in US history could go down as the moment when America’s democratic system for electing a president – the most consequential duty of US citizens – was broken, perhaps for good."
May 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "While reading Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) monumental report “A Threshold Crossed,” I felt a range of emotions. It also left me with one big question. I was deeply impressed by the report’s rigorous scholarship. At the same time, it brought to the surface feelings of anger and profound sadness. It’s an extraordinarily complete study detailing not only the many ways Israel has violated a broad range of Palestinian human rights, but the ideology of racial superiority and entitlement that Israel has used to justify its repression." ..... "My advice to both Israel’s defenders and weak-kneed liberals is​, “Read the damn report.” "
May 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: .... "He transformed a transitioning market economy into a stable statist project that rests on an alliance of his inner circle," ..... "He transformed Russia from a respected member of the international community into a rogue state" .... ". He energized NATO by providing it with the adversary it lacked after the end of the cold war," ..... "He befriended hopelessly corrupt, dysfunctional, and unstable dictatorships..." ..... "He forged a quasi-alliance with China, thereby enhancing Russia’s dependence on the one country that might have reason to appropriate those Russian territories inhabited by Chinese."
May 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "On the face of it, the latest escalation of violence is following the template of all inter-ethnic wars. Muslims observing Ramadan shouted nationalist slogans and clashed with Israeli right-wing groups chanting “Death to the Arabs.” The Israelis haughtily marched with their national flag on Jerusalem Day, marking Israel’s capture in 1967 of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, the site of the biblical Second Temple, and of Al-Aqsa, completed in the year 705. Battles in and around the Al-Aqsa compound erupted, with worshipers inside throwing stones at the Israeli police, who responded by firing rubber-tipped bullets and other projectiles, wounding hundreds."
May 13th 2021
"Regardless of how the current and future violent conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians in Jerusalem will end, there will be no Israeli-Palestinian peace unless East Jerusalem becomes the capital of a Palestinian state while the city remains united."
May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."