The resumption of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba creates space for dialogue and cooperation. Media in both countries are cheering on the recent prisoner swap, but is it all just a sign that Cuba’s revolutionary days are numbered?
Javier Yanez stands on his balcony where he hung a U.S. and Cuban flag in Old Havana Cuba, Friday, Dec. 19, 2014. After the surprise announcement on Wednesday of the restoration of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the U.S., many Cubans expressed hope that it will mean greater access to jobs and the comforts taken for granted elsewhere, and lift their struggling economy. However others feared a cultural onslaught, or that crime and drugs, both rare in Cuba, will become common along with visitors from the United States. Photo: Ramon Espinosa/AP
On Dec. 17, the United States and Cuba carried out an unprecedented — but not unforeseen — prisoner swap: USAID subcontractor Alan Gross and an unidentified U.S. intelligence asset were released by Cuban authorities in exchange for the three remaining members of the “Cuban 5” being held in the U.S.
Gross was arrested in 2009 for bringing satellite phones and computer equipment into Cuba without the proper permit — part of a congressionally mandated program to encourage democracy on the island. In 2011, he was convicted of “acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the state” and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The Cuban 5, on the other hand, were imprisoned for attempting to safeguard the small island nation from terrorist activities that intensified following the 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger plane by former CIA agents Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch. In 1998, they were charged with a number of crimes in the U.S., including conspiracy to commit espionage, conspiracy to commit murder, and acting as agents of a foreign government.
Yet the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba has eclipsed the immediate diplomatic overtures characterized by the prisoner swap. Claiming that 50 years of diplomatic isolation “has not worked,” U.S. President Barack Obama declared “a new approach” that is little more than a continuation of U.S. attempts to secure its interests on the island. Obama also said that he is convinced that “through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves.”
Cuban President Raul Castro’s message to the nation to mark the negotiated release was a calculated diplomatic attempt to merge the Cuban Revolution embodied by Fidel Castro with the the recent overtures to the U.S. Quoting Fidel Castro in his speech with reference to the return of the Cuban 5: “As Fidel promised on June 2001, when he said: ‘They shall return!’ Gerardo, Ramon, and Antonio have arrived to our homeland today.”
Meanwhile, Raul insisted that the “respectful dialogue” with the U.S. would take place “without detriment to the national Independence and self-determination of our people.”
At the end of his speech, Raul affirmed: “While acknowledging our profound differences, particularly on issues related to national sovereignty, democracy, human rights and foreign policy, I reaffirm our willingness to dialogue on these issues.”
From isolation to dialogue
In this 1962 file photo President John F. Kennedy meets with Air Force Maj. Richard “Steve” Heyser, left, and Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Curtis LeMay, center, at the White House in Washington to discuss U-2 spy plane flights over Cuba. Photo: Richard Heyser private collection/AP
In U.S. terms, the concept of dialogue has been spelled out in a series of concessions and compromises. Of paramount significance is the slated opening of a U.S. Embassy in Havana, followed by the easing of trade, financial and travel restrictions, as well as the possible removal of Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list compiled by the U.S. State Department — a label which only has only recently been deemed unsuitable for Cuba, ostensibly due to the current Cuban government’s willingness to resume diplomatic relations with the U.S.
When the list was established in 1979, it included Libya, Iraq, South Yemen, and Syria. It has changed over the years, seeing countries added and removed. The list currently contains four countries — Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria.
Following the prisoner swap, there has been movement around taking Cuba off of the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, where it has stayed since 1982. Obama has ordered a review of Cuba’s inclusion on the list as well as a report within six months that summarizes the country’s current stance toward allegedly supporting terrorism. However, such a decision highlights a significant shift in U.S. policy that would be difficult to achieve without compromise.
Al-Jazeera has reported opposition from congressional Republicans, who have deemed Obama’s decision “outrageous.” The outlet quoted House Speaker John Boehner as saying, “Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom – and not one second sooner.”
Yet U.S. restrictions on Cuba date back to the Eisenhower administration, which authorized the commencement of trade restrictions upon Cuba following Fidel’s declaration of agrarian reform in 1959.
Of greater significance was the counter-revolutionary involvement of the CIA which, under orders from Eisenhower himself, trained Cuban exiles in attempts to overthrow Fidel’s revolutionary government. Counter-revolutionary activity in the early years of the revolution culminated in the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, during the Kennedy administration, when CIA-trained paramilitary Cuban mercenaries were defeated by the Cubans within 72 hours.
Kennedy’s presidency was marked by the full implementation of the U.S. embargo initiated during Eisenhower’s presidency and the initiation of USAID — a project that has remained loyal to its initial concept of fomenting subversion under the guise of humanitarian projects.
However, despite the repercussions felt by Cuba, Fidel maintained the belief that Kennedy could be, “in the eyes of history, the greatest President of the United States, the leader who may at last understand that there can be coexistence between capitalists and socialists, even in the Americas” — a view he expounded upon in his autobiography, “My Life: Fidel Castro with Ignacio Ramonet.”
Not a termination of long-standing policy
A photograph of Fidel Castro hangs under the Spanish word “Welcome” on the wall at a state-run food market in Havana, Cuba, Friday, Dec. 26, 2014. Photo:Ramon Espinosa/AP
Since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, Cuba has been at the helm of providing support for leftist revolutionary movements worldwide. Notable examples of this include Cuba’s support for Chile’s Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) and Palestinian revolutionary factions such as the PLO, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, as well as the country’s participation in the anti-colonial struggle in Angola. The MIR and the Palestinian factions, in particular, had been designated by the U.S. as groups engaging in terrorist operations.
Establishing a U.S. Embassy in Havana will consolidate the normalization process that U.S. and Cuban mainstream media are framing as a diplomatic breakthrough. Yet a U.S. diplomatic base in Havana may carry severe consequences for maintaining Cuba’s revolutionary character. Through USAID, the U.S. already proven its intent to undermine and subvert the revolutionary cause, ultimately resulting in a negotiation that has placed the humanitarian aspect above that of the political — which, it should be noted, caused the humanitarian issues in the first place. Looking at USAID’s subversive humanitarian work through the decades, each phase corresponds to violence carried out by the U.S. From the year 2000 onward, for example, USAID has focused upon “War and Rebuilding” — corresponding with the destruction unleashed upon countries in several Arab countries.
The U.S. has also tenaciously held on to the military-occupied Guantanamo — the U.S. naval base which houses a detention and torture center that operates with absolute impunity upon territory that Fidel has consistently argued should be returned to Cuba.
As much as the negotiated prisoner release has been hailed by the media, relatively little has been said about Cuba’s requests to extradite self-declared counter-revolutionary and CIA agent Luis Posada Carriles, who has been living in the U.S. since 2005. Wanted by both Venezuela and Cuba for the terrorist bombing of a Cuban airliner in 1976, U.S. authorities have repeatedly refused extradition requests from both countries for judicial proceedings, claiming fear of human rights violations.
According to the National Security Archives, the CIA was aware of Carriles’ plans to bomb a Cuban airliner. Carriles had long been in contact with the CIA, having joined the 2506 Brigade which was to participate in the Bay of Pigs invasion. However, the ship pertaining to the 2506 Brigade never landed in Cuba. Between 1963 and 1965, Carriles was trained by the CIA and subsequently became a paramilitary trainer himself.
While the U.S. embargo rightly features prominently in current discussions of the normalization of diplomatic relations, it is evident that the U.S.’s re-establishment of relations with Cuba is not a termination of Eisenhower’s long-standing policy. Since 1961, Cuba has been subjected to violent attacks, including over 638 attempts to murder Fidel Castro as an integral part of bringing “democracy” to the island, in addition to the U.S.-mandated economic isolation and trade restrictions.
After decades of isolation and restrictions, it’s difficult to say whether Cuba’s revolutionary spirit will survive amid this new era of diplomatic relations — no matter how much media on both sides heralds it as a welcome achievement.