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How Obama resolved U.S.’ 50- year rift with Cuba

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) greets Cuban President Raul Castro before giving his speech at the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela at the First National Bank soccer stadium, also known as Soccer City, in Johannesburg December 10, 2013. Obama shook the hand of Castro at a memorial for Nelson Mandela on Tuesday, a rare gesture between the leaders of two nations at loggerheads for more than half a century.  REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: POLITICS OBITUARY)

U.S. President Barack Obama (L) greets Cuban President Raul Castro before giving his speech at the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela at the First National Bank soccer stadium in Johannesburg December 10, 2013. PHOTO: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach 

ONE of the last vestiges of the Cold War between the United States of America (USA) and the defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) was pulled down last Wednesday with the announcement, by the Barack Obama administration, of an end to the frosty relationship between the USA and its tiny but hostile neighbour, the Republic of Cuba.

In what may likely affect the outcome of next year’s American presidential elections as the horde of Republicans who are conservative and rigid about American positions on international issues could use it as campaign instrument against Obama’s Democratic Party.

Although as at yesterday the two countries have concluded another round of talks, restoration of diplomatic ties though establishment of embassies has not been announced.

For the long period of hostilities between the two countries, which peaked during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the two nations have been talking through Switzerland, which provided diplomatic linkage.

The 1962 crisis was the darkest moment in the countries’ relationship when on the morning of October 15, 1962 the U.S. spy planes discovered evidence that the Soviet Union was building missile bases in Cuba.

President Kennedy learned of the threat the following day, and for the next 12 days the U.S. and Russia were locked in what was then referred to as “a white-knuckled nuclear face-off” that ended only when Nikita Khrushchev accepted Kennedy’s secret proposal to remove U.S. missiles in Turkey in exchange for the de-arming of Cuba.

The Soviet missiles were gone within six months, but it would take a long time for America to forgive the nation that allowed them to be placed so close to the American mainland.

The leader of the Cuban revolution, which ended the Batista Regime and who got initial support from the U.S, Fidel Castro, had two years earlier, seized private land, nationalized hundreds of private companies — including several local subsidiaries of U.S. corporations — and taxed American products so heavily that U.S. exports were halved in just two years.

The early 1960s were marked by a number of subversive, top-secret U.S. attempts to topple the Cuban government. The Bay of Pigs — the CIA’s botched attempt to overthrow Castro by training Cuban exiles for a ground attack — was followed by Operation Mongoose: a years-long series of increasingly far-fetched attempts on Castro’s life.

Between 1961 and 1963 there were at least five plots to kill, maim or humiliate Castro using everything from exploding seashells to shoes dusted with chemicals to make his beard fall out.

In April 1980, a downtown in the economy caused thousands of dissatisfied Cubans to seek political asylum in foreign countries. Anyone who wanted to leave, Castro announced, could do so through its northwestern port, Mariel Harbor.

Over the next six months 125,000 Cubans clambered onto boats and made their way to the U.S. in a mass flotilla. Castro also released criminals and mental-hospital patients, of whom as many as 22,000 landed on the shores of Florida; Cuba refused to take them back.

The U.S. strengthened its embargo rules in 1992 and again in 1996 with the Helms-Burton Act, which applied the embargo to foreign countries that traded with Cuba and was issued in retaliation after Cuba shot down two U.S. civilian airplanes.

The last decade has seen the U.S. tighten and then relax restrictions depending on the political climate. A 2001 agreement to sell food to Cuba in the aftermath of Hurricane Michelle has so far remained in place; the U.S is now Cuba’s main supplier of food, with sales reaching $710 million in 2008.

But during this period Americans still cherished some Cuban products especially the Havana cigars while Cuban doctors and their medical prowess continue to attract patronage from the USA and the rest of the world
The emergence of Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother after the incapacitation by old age, of the revolutionary leader on October 2012, however signaled the beginning of thawing of the icy relationship between the two countries that are only a hundred miles apart.

Signs that the end of hostilities was getting nearer were visible during the burial of the legendary Nelson Mandela in South Africa when for the first time in years both the leaders of Washington and Havana in the persons of Obama and Castro, not only saw eye to eye but also had a warm handshake to the admiration and surprise of the world.

But die-hard American conservatives took the dramatic encounter that could only be made possible by the celebration of a person like the legendary Mandela, with a pinch of salt.

However, Wednesday’s agreement by the two countries have brought to an end, the hostility of decades, as they formally agreed to restore diplomatic relations on July 20, setting up a trip to Havana by John Kerry, who would become the first U.S. secretary of state to visit the country in 70 years.

Sealed by an exchange of letters between Obama and Castro, the deal fulfills a pledge the former Cold War enemies made six months ago. It also attempts to end the recriminations that have predominated ever since Fidel Castro’s rebels overthrew the U.S. -backed government of Fulgencio Batista on Jan. 1, 1959.

The letters set a date of July 20 for the re-establishment of relations, and embassies could be opened at that time or later.
Kerry, speaking from Vienna, said he would visit Havana to raise the U.S. flag outside the future U.S. embassy, currently labeled an interests section.

“The progress that we mark today is yet another demonstration that we don’t have to be imprisoned by the past,” Obama said from the White House Rose Garden. “When something isn’t working, we can – and will – change.”

Despite the recorded progress however, analysts believe that the development could throw up some obstacles to the newly found relationship.
The two countries will turn to more difficult bilateral problems likely to take years to resolve.

Cuba’s Communist government said in a statement that to have normal overall relations, the U.S. must rescind its economic embargo and return the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, which it has leased since 1903, as sovereign Cuban territory.

Asked whether he could envision a day when the U.S might give up the base, U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told a Pentagon news conference there was “no anticipation and no plan, with respect to the Guantanamo Bay naval station in Cuba.”

Obama, a Democrat, has asked the Republican-controlled Congress to lift the 53-year-old embargo, but the conservative leadership in Congress has resisted.

A Cuban government statement said the U.S also needed to halt radio and television broadcasts beamed into the country and stop “subversive” programme that the U.S says are intended to promote democracy.

While critics including Republican presidential candidates have accused Obama of capitulation, the Cuba deal marks a major achievement for him. Obama has been criticized for foreign policy stumbles, especially in the Middle East.
Public opinion polls show majority support for engaging with Cuba, even among Cuban-Americans who had historically been firm supporters of the embargo.



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