Commentary | Raising New Flags and Hopes in US-Cuba Relations

Note: President Barack Obama is making the first visit of a U.S. head of state in 88 years this week as the thaw in US-Cuban relations reaches a new stage. On the occasion of the landmark visit The Tennessean asked the World Affairs Council’s president Patrick Ryan to share a perspective on developments in the relationship. These views are his own.

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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets the three veteran Marines — Mike East, James “Jim” Tracy, and Larris Morris — who lowered the American flag at U.S. Embassy Havana in 1961, during the flag-raising ceremony in Havana, Cuba, on August 14, 2015. Secretary Kerry presided over the flag-raising ceremony at the newly re-opened U.S. Embassy in Havana. This is the first time the American flag was raised over U.S. Embassy Havana in 54 years. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

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Raising New Flags and Hopes in US-Cuba Relations
by Patrick W. Ryan

Fifty-five years ago three U.S. Marines lowered the American flag at the U.S. Embassy in Havana marking the end of the United States’ presence in Cuba and opening an era of estrangement from one of our closest neighbors. Last August Sgt. Jim Tracy, Cpl. Larry Morris and Cpl. Francis East, now in their 70s, returned to raise the flag over their former duty station, a promise they made in 1961, as the United States and Cuba reestablished diplomatic relations.

In the intervening years between flag ceremonies the relationship was tortured by competing ideologies and geopolitics marked chiefly by Cold War alignments and confrontation, most memorably in the Cuban missile crisis that brought east and west to the brink of nuclear war in 1962. Washington charged that the Communist regime of Fidel Castro backed terrorism and the export of revolution across the Americas and Africa. Cuba bristled at attempts to overthrow the Havana regime during the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion, numerous inept attempts to assassinate President Castro, and the biting effects of an American trade embargo.

The estrangement didn’t recover from the depths of Cold War confrontation even as tensions lessened between Washington and Moscow and even with the demise of the Soviet Union, Havana’s stalwart patron. Positions remained hardened for decades more as the rule of Castro continued and American policymaking continued to be influenced by an outspoken and politically influential community of Cuban exiles in south Florida.

The stalemate was broken in December 2014 after 18 months of secret talks, aided by Pope Francis, when President Obama announced, “We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests..” The rapprochement between governments has not been universally popular in political circles. The Republican controlled Senate has resisted lifting the half-century-old trade embargo that was enshrined in law and the 2016 presidential campaign, especially among the Republican nomination candidates, has raised US-Cuban relations as an emotional issue.

Those in favor of resuming relations criticize the isolation of Cuba by America (which stands mostly alone among nations in the embargo) as having been ineffective for decades in changing the internal politics of Havana’s totalitarian regime. Those opposed to rapprochement believe the new ties will bring economic benefits to Cuba that will strengthen the hand of the regime to continue its repressive practices.

In February President Obama announced he will visit Cuba and that the “new chapter in our relationship with the people of Cuba” was the best way to advance American interests and values. This week he will travel to Havana for a two-day visit along with first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters. In addition to meeting with Cuban leaders he will talk with dissidents and entrepreneurs continuing to emphasize the importance of ensuring American policies focus on the Cuban people.

Already American businesses have flocked to the island looking for the promise of business deals and tourists have filled the available organized tours to experience the long-time forbidden fruit just 90 miles away. Restrictions that were relaxed by the resumption of relations have been eased even more by the Administration this week, including the restoration of up to 110 flights a day to encourage more connections between people and businesses.

Concerns remain that the American goals of democracy promotion will be stymied by a Cuban regime reinvigorated by an economic boost. A convincing argument can be made, however, that engagement, not confrontation, will yield results in the areas of human rights and civil society.

Myanmar offers a case study. American diplomatic engagement with the inward-looking dictatorial military regime in that country, formerly Burma, yielded elections that produced a quasi-civilian government in 2011. The landmark change sparked an evolution of the political process resulting in November’s voting in of the party of former dissident and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, a landslide victory. Last week Suu Kyi’s proxy – she’s legally barred due to her connections with the west – was named as the next president. Challenges remain as the country adapts to its new government but there is hope Myanmar has turned a historic corner.

Will Cuba evolve politically under the weight of increased business, educational and people-to-people bridge building? Or will a repressive regime – whatever ultimately follows the Castro brothers – continue to exist? The Obama Administration has reached out to the people of Cuba with a hand, not a fist but the wisdom of resuming relations has yet to be defined.

Patrick W. Ryan who lives in Nashville served 26 years in the US Navy as a submariner and intelligence officer. He is founder and president of the Tennessee World Affairs Council and can be contacted at LINK.

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