When Fidel Castro gave structure to Cuba’s new-found socialist government by wrapping it into the Communist Party, it was the mid-1960s, and the U.S. had begun to increase the number of American troops in Vietnam. There was a fear that if South Vietnam became Communist, as was Cuba, other countries in other parts of the world would, too.
That is how long ago U.S. policy toward Cuba was set.
Castro’s regime, beginning in 1959 when he took power, quickly took aim at assets owned by foreigners and the wealthy. Without compensation, Cubans lost businesses and attractive homes, farms were expropriated and turned into cooperatives, and the Catholic church was stripped of its holdings. The Cubans who fled to Florida and New Jersey had a right to be furious.
The following decades produced a society with mixed characteristics. Low and moderate levels of literacy is high, medical care is available, and there is no homelessness or extreme hunger. That is better than many Central and South American countries. But there are very limited human rights, no independent elections or a press, nor are there workplace or professional opportunities. Journalists are imprisoned, those with AIDS segregated. Everyone’s wages are only a few dollars a month. The Party has set severe limits and watches over everyone.
In his meeting last week in Panama with Cuba’s president Raul Castro, Fidel’s slightly younger brother, Barack Obama punctured the barrier that has separated the two countries since 1959. It was a conversation that could result in greater diplomatic relations and more travel and trade between the two countries. It also begins to remove an obstacle to better relations between the U.S. and many Central and South American countries that have long felt that the U.S.’s position toward their sister Spanish-speaking country has been outdated and too punitive.
In initial comments, Obama and Castro were rightly cautious about promising any specific initiatives between their two countries. Although Fidel Castro is less visible, he and Raul still hold sway. In recent years, they have only slightly relaxed their control over Cuban life. That could well continue. And Obama can well imagine the political challenges that will occur.
A relaxation of the decades-old trade embargo, which is so important to the Cubans, is not up to Obama. That requires congressional action. But we can imagine that U.S. corporations, which would like to sell their wares and services only 90 miles away in Havana, and American farmers their crops, are seeing the Obama-Raul Castro conversation as an opportunity to increase their lobbying for access to Cuban markets. Slowly perhaps, in one specialty then another, but an access that will permit them to compete with Asian and European companies already doing business there.
Talk is often the beginning of greater things, and Obama’s meeting with Raul Castro could be one of those events that changes the direction of history.