A couple of months ago I commented on the gradual but encouraging progress of liberalistion in Cuba. But it’s important to remember that the most significant factor in Cuban politics has always been its troubled relationship with its much larger neighbor to the north.
The mildly reformist leadership of Raúl Castro, who succeeded his elder brother Fidel in 2008, has coincided with a more liberal administration in Washington as well. Barack Obama has always seemed sceptical about the merits of the American boycott of Cuba, and in small but significant ways he has pushed for a degree of re-engagement.
Last week came perhaps the clearest sign so far that change is on the way. The leader of a US delegation to Cuba for talks on immigration issues said that his discussions had been “very constructive and have led to some positive outcomes.” The official State Department press statement is non-committal, but at a press conference in Havana, Edward Alex Lee, who is acting deputy assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, was more forthcoming, saying that “over the course of the past year and a half we have been able to speak to each other in a respectful and thoughtful manner.”
According to the BBC report, he said that the US is “very open” to building a new relationship with Cuba, although of course he added that it still wanted to see “fundamental” political change. Even the official statement says that the talks “highlighted areas of successful cooperation.”
This follows the much-reported encounter last month at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, when Obama and Raúl Castro shook hands. Although the moment was apparently unplanned and the two did not engage in any substantive conversation, it was still taken – and welcomed as such in Cuba – as a notable step towards normalisation.
The truth is that both countries are changing. Cuba’s revolution has not brought the freedom and prosperity it promised (although it must be said that some of its social achievements have been significant), and the younger generation has little time for the Castros’ anachronistic Marxism. In the US, on the other hand, the first generation of Cuban exiles are dying out, anti-communism is no longer a potent issue, and the sort of conciliatory measures that would once have been politically toxic (especially in Florida, a vital swing state) have become thinkable.
Without yet being quite ready to admit it, each side is probably waking up to the fact that the boycott has outlived its relevance, and its political benefits for the Castros may well outweigh any economic harm it still does them. Nearly five years ago, as the thaw was beginning, I mused as follows:
Twenty years ago, when the Soviet empire entered meltdown, it was reasonable to expect that Cuba would go the same way as the other satellite states. The fact that it has not – that Bulgaria, for example, is now a functioning democracy, while the Castros still rule the roost in Cuba – no doubt has many causes, but an important one must be the ready availability of the US and its sanctions as a scapegoat for the regime’s failings.
On the record of the last five years, cautious engagement has a better record than isolation in encouraging change. Perhaps opening the door even further, as Obama seems to be contemplating, would work even better. It’s at least worth a try.