Redefining the U.S.-Cuba Relationship

Whoever wins the Presidential election in November will face criticism from Central and South American nations about the embargo and isolation of Cuba. Neither candidate will budge on this issue prior to the election, for reasons obvious to anyone who understands the electoral college. As a Republican interested in re-election, Romney will not budge after November either, if he wins (another reason why this election matters). However, if President Obama is re-elected, he will have a historically unprecedented opening to redefine the U.S.-Cuba relationship.

Consider the facts:

*After November, President Obama will not stand for election again and need therefore not fear personal electoral consequences.

*The Cuban exiles overwhelmingly vote Republican, so there is not much for a Democratic President (or other Democratic candidates) to lose in popularity with that population in any event.

*Hatred of Castro is still prevalent among older Cuban-Americans in Florida, but their children and even moreso their grandchildren want a closer connection between the U.S. and Cuba.

*By the time of the 2016 Presidential election, Fidel Castro will be 90 if he is alive at all. The people nursing grudges against him in South Florida are also passing into history. No matter whether that generation was right or wrong, the future of the U.S.-Cuba relationship belongs to others.

The President has already laid good groundwork by making travel to Cuba easier. He could and should dramatically expand travel and exchange programmes (including for children) after the election, restrict the embargo’s reach (exempting all but military supplies, perhaps), and consider expanding our formal diplomatic presence in Havana.

The political reality may be that as long as the Castros are alive, we can’t fully normalize our relationship with Cuba. If that is so, there is no reason why we can’t have all the pieces in place to jump start a friendship 24 hours after those cold war dinosaurs go for a Burton.

25,000 Pen Pals for Cuba

As long as Fidel Castro (age 84, his brother Raul is 79) is alive, U.S.-Cuban relations will be largely frozen in their present form, as will many internal aspects of Cuban society. Sometimes individual leaders become their foreign and domestic policies, and when they finally join the choir invisible, massive pent-up changes are suddenly unleashed. Examples include Gorbachev’s dramatic domestic and international reforms after the last cold war-era Soviet Chairmen bought the state-controlled farm in rapid succession in the early 1980s, and, Spain’s rapid transformation after Generalissimo Franco went for a Burton in 1975.

When the Castros hop the twig, we will have the best chance in over half a century to transform U.S.-Cuban relations. The Cubans will have an equally golden opportunity to transform their own culture and political institutions. In both endeavors, strong pre-existing bonds of friendship across the U.S.-Cuba divide will be of great value. I am not talking of friendships between heads of state, but between teachers, preachers, mayors, artists, artisans, shopkeepers, parents, senior citizens and others who might travel back and forth between the two countries and be the socio-cultural capital upon which great things are built.

We could start, as the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland are doing, by promoting interaction among our children before they have a chance to absorb their parents’ biases and old grudges. A simple way to do this is to expand the many existing pen pal programs in U.S. schools to include children in Cuban schools. Both governments would have to agree to allow unencumbered mail flow and help match children by language skills but that would be the needed and desired extent of their involvement. If we started with 25,000 pen pals, we should end up in the post-Castro era with some long-standing friendships between adults that could help both societies begin a new, better era together.