The face-to-face meeting between the presidents of the United States and Cuba in Panama over the weekend symbolized more than a rapprochement between two longtime enemies. This historic get-together also represented a rare reversal by America of a failed policy that was stubbornly pursued for a half-century and the tenacity of a communist regime only 90 miles from our shores.
The last American president to meet with his Cuban counterpart was Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1956, with Fulgencio Batista. Three years later, after rebels toppled the dictator, Fidel Castro met with Vice President Richard M. Nixon. But then in January 1961, the U.S. closed its embassy in Havana. Three months later, then-President John F. Kennedy backed the failed invasion of the island by Cuban dissidents that drew its name from the site of the landing: the Bay of Pigs.
This ill-conceived attempt to topple Castro was a fiasco, and the more than five decades of strict U.S. sanctions against Cuba was equally unsuccessful.
Fidel Castro survived to see John F. Kennedy assassinated. He saw Lyndon Johnson, politically destroyed by the war in Vietnam, die of a failing heart in Texas; and he gleefully witnessed Richard Nixon become embroiled in scandal and forced to resign. American voters later rejected President Ford, and refused to re-elect Carter and George Bush Sr. — and yet Castro managed to retain power. It was only his failing health that eventually forced Fidel to relinquish his control over Cuba — passing the baton to his brother, Raúl.
The once-mighty Soviet Union disintegrated, the Iron Curtain opened and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down — and all the while, the despotic Cuban regime remained in power.
There is little doubt that, to a large degree, the U.S. policy towards Cuba was influenced by political considerations. Cuban-Americans, many of them descendants of refugees who fled Castro’s Cuba, are an influential voting bloc in battle-state Florida. Over the years, anti-Cuban activists have presented compelling emotional arguments about the cruel and inhumane way that Cuba crushes its dissidents.
But what was left unsaid was that American foreign policy has always been a mangled web of contradictions. Throughout the decades that it rigorously enforced a host of sanctions against communist Cuba, it granted Most Favorite Nation trading status to the equally oppressive communist regime in China. The righteous anger against Cuba was primarily due to its horrific record of human rights violations, yet the equally nefarious crimes of the Chinese and other totalitarian regimes were blissfully ignored.
Unlike China, a mammoth trading partner, Cuba was seen as a thorn in America’s side. It was an international embarrassment that America, a superpower that prides itself on being the leader of the free world, was unable to bring democracy to this small island only a boat ride away from its shores.
Nine American presidents had the dubious honor of enforcing U.S. sanctions against Cuba, but to no avail. Dictatorships the world over tottered and fell, yet Fidel Castro and then his brother maintained their firm grip on power.
After more than 50 years, America finally came to the inescapable conclusion that sanctions would not bring the communist regime in Cuba to its knees, and the time had finally come for a new approach.
President Obama ran in 2008 on a platform that included re-examining the U.S.-Cuba relationship, but he waited until he was well into his second term before taking this dramatic step.
There are still numerous tangible hurdles that must be overcome in negotiations between the two governments over reopening embassies, including ending Cuba’s designation by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terrorism, and other topics. The Republican-led Congress is expected to fiercely oppose lifting the decades-long embargo against Cuba, and many of the concerns they are raising are valid ones. The administration should be careful not to rush into an agreement with Cuba until it is confident it has achieved the best deal possible under the circumstances.
Regardless of what the precise details of the final agreement will be, we have to accept the distressing and painful reality that the great beacon of democracy known as the United States of America, country of some 318 million people residing in 50 states from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, was outfoxed by a small communist country of some 11 million people.
As every chess player knows, what ultimately counts isn’t how many pieces you have on the chessboard as the game comes to a conclusion — but the survival of the king. At the end of five decades of effort, and despite its massive military might and economic prowess, America was unable to checkmate the Castro regime, and finally called it a draw.