On the Right Path in U.S.-Cuba Relations: Reflections from Former Chief of U.S. Interests Section
Last Tuesday night, I was in Havana, giving a talk calling for relations between the United States and Cuba – pushing for the United States to take Cuba off the terrorist list, to ease travel restrictions, and free the remaining Cuban Five, among other changes. To my surprise, virtually everything that I called for, the administration moved to implement at dawn the next day.
When the United States broke relations with Cuba in 1961, I helped close the U.S. embassy in Havana. Many people thought that this phase in U.S.-Cuba relations would not last long, that cutting ties would lead to Fidel Castro’s downfall. But it only proved counterproductive, damaging the United States’ standing in the world and doing nothing to improve the lives of the Cuban people.
Since leaving the Foreign Service in 1982, I have called for a dialogue and a change of policy, something a little more constructive that might work, not the same tactic that failed year after year for half a century.
It was a great surprise, but a great pleasure, that both governments finally did what they should have done – it was exactly the right thing to do, and I was relieved after seeing so many efforts fail.
As the announcement of restored relations came through Wednesday morning, there was utter joy and elation among the Cuban people in the streets, there were cheers and applause – this is what they have been waiting for, too.
This change came at a critical moment. The Obama administration had to come to it or risk a further deterioration of relations with the rest of the hemisphere. There were questions in Latin America about our relations with Cuba and what that said about our policy in the hemisphere. Now those questions have been set aside and we can move forward to focus on improved relations with all.
The Center for International Policy’s Cuba Program, established in 1992, has advocated for dialogue and engagement, because it is impossible to resolve disagreements if you do not discuss them. We have won small victories and found new ways to engage with the Cubans, moving around our governments. But there have always been events that have thwarted the greater hopes and ambitions.
Some wonder what has motivated me to keep working on restoring relations for more than half a century. It is because I have a real love for the Cuban people, some of the most noble, sensible people I have known.
And while the most important part of last Wednesday’s agreement is the symbolism of breaking with the past, I do not think it will take that long to see the first positive results.
We have made a tremendous step forward, but our work is not done. We are on the right path, but there are now new, and more encouraging things to do. There will be obstacles, but they are not insurmountable. This will be a success, but we all must work together to make sure the policy moves forward as it should.
The next few years will be hard work. We must discuss our problems and resolve our disagreements, not all perhaps, but moving bit-by-bit with a whole new attitude, we can make progress.
I cannot deny that CIP and myself had a bit to do with this historic agreement, but none of this could have been accomplished without a unified, sustained effort from groups here in Washington, across the United States and in Cuba. So many worked for this.
Congratulations to both governments and to those who have advocated tirelessly for a new policy. We are finally on the right road after all these years. What a victory for the world.
Wayne S. Smith is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington D.C. and has been an Adjunct Professor of Latin American Studies at the John Hopkins University since 1983. He was Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 1979-82.