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Thursday, January 1, 2015

The Breakthrough With Cuba: How It Happened and What Happens Next

For weeks, rumors had been swirling around Washington and Havana that changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba were in the works. Then, on December 17, President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro made simultaneous announcements of a radical change in relations between the two countries. Not only would USAID subcontractor Alan Gross and the three remaining Cubans spies of the Cuban Five be going home -- which was the deal most observers had anticipated -- but Cuba and the United States also would expand trade and travel, and restore full diplomatic relations.

Although President Obama had said repeatedly that he thought the old policy of isolation and hostility toward Havana no longer made any sense, for six years he did little to change it. Then in one announcement, he reversed 50 years of U.S. policy, completely revamping the basic framework and premises of the relationship. What happened to finally break the log-jam?

First, the political calculus changed. Recent polls from the Atlantic Council and Florida International University showed that the public in general and Cuban-Americans in particular supported reconciliation between Washington and Havana. Comments by prominent exiles like Alfie Fanjul and the Barcardi family expressing a desire to do business in Cuba showed that even stalwart anti-Castro leaders in the community were ready for change.

Hillary Clinton's public declaration that the embargo ought to be lifted, and former Governor Charlie Crist's promise to go to Cuba during his gubernatorial run indicated that seasoned politicians recognized the shifting mood of the electorate. Weighing the evidence, the White House concluded that Cuba was no longer the third rail of Florida politics. And of course, Obama doesn't have to run for re-election anyway.

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Having just coauthored a book with Peter Kornbluh on secret diplomacy (Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana), I wondered in the weeks leading up to the historic announcement whether secret talks might already be underway with Cuba. Now we know that these talks followed a classic pattern: only a handful of officials knew about the negotiations; the talks were held outside the country to avoid discovery; and the bargaining went on for months to produce an accord. But the scope of the resulting agreements is unprecedented in U.S.-Cuban relations, and the negotiators on both sides deserve enormous credit for bringing the talks to fruition.

In April, the presidents of the Americas will convene in Panama for their Seventh Summit, and for the first time Cuba will be included. Obama's new Cuba policy is extraordinarily popular in Latin America, and the good will it has engendered will go far to revitalize U.S. relations with the entire hemisphere. The summit will also give Raúl Castro and Barack Obama an opportunity to talk in person about the next steps in the new relationship.

When Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, the world breathed a sigh of relief that U.S. policy was finally getting back in touch with reality. On December 17, Barack Obama took an equally bold step by finally ending the cold war in the Caribbean. The reaction at home and abroad has been overwhelmingly positive, a few churlish conservative critics notwithstanding. Many loose ends remain to be tied up before the United States and Cuba will have fully normal relations, but a new chapter has been opened, and the idea of going back to the past already seems ridiculous and impossible.

William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University and coauthor with Peter Kornbluh of the recent book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.

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