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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 15 New Delhi April 2, 2016

US President in Cuba: Obama gets Mojito, Havana Cigar, but no Fidel

Monday 4 April 2016, by M K Bhadrakumar

“There is bound to be lingering doubt at the end of the day whether President Barack Obama’s trip to Cuba measured up as a ‘historic visit’. What is Cuba’s history without Fidel Castro? Except for a last-minute drama, the possibility of Fidel receiving Obama at his home seems very remote. And that caps the optics of Obama’s visit despite the red carpet welcome he received.” (Mail)

Washington put on a brave face saying no meeting with Fidel was planned; neither side sought one; and, the “correct arrangement” is that the two Presidents met. But Obama probably hoped that Fidel, who is famous for springing surprises, might just do that. He said he would have no objection to meeting the iconic figure — “just as a symbol of the end of this Cold War chapter”.

Curiously, Fidel had favourably commented when Obama was awarded the Nobel in 2009. The veteran Communist revolutionary wrote in a column that he had often disagreed with the choice of Norway’s Nobel judges, but, “I must admit that in this (Obama’s) case, in my opinion, it was a positive step”. Indeed, Fidel added a caveat: “Many believe that he still has not earned the right to receive such a distinction. But we would like to see, more than a prize for the US President, a criticism of the genocidal policies that have been followed by more than a few Presidents of that country.”

So, why didn’t Fidel receive Obama? Fidel is too great a humanist to hold it against Obama that the CIA repeatedly plotted to kill him. Can it be that Fidel is dogmatic? Of course not. How unequivocally he did reconcile with the Church! Can it be that he did not want to overshadow his brother, President Raul Castro? But then, Fidel frequently received foreign dignitaries on official visit—and that invariably turned out to the high noon on the visitor’s itinerary.

One reason why Fidel hesitated could be that he had no real option here so long as the US’ embargo against Cuba continued. The heart of the matter is that the embargo remains a national humiliation for Cuba. Fidel often spoke and wrote about it. While Fidel wouldn’t impede diplomacy to run its course or place impediments on the long winding road of US-Cuban normalisation, when it comes to the embargo, it is a matter of national honour. The 55-year old embargo was imposed in the wake of the Cuban Revolution; it was the most severe US trade embargo imposed on any nation except Red China; and, it is one of the longest running embargoes in US history. Raul Castro warned that the embargo is still in the way of normalisation of relations.

In all fairness, Obama is helpless here. The Republican-dominated US Congress intends to keep the embargo in place this year and it’s a political season in America till November. Period. On the other hand, it is an embargo in name only and is riddled with as many holes as Swiss cheese, as someone pointed out. Besides, if Cuba wants something from America, it can always source it through a third party. However, it sticks out and retains a huge amount of symbolic value despite all the manoeuvres and presidential executive orders Obama issued to cut into it. In Raul’s words, “The blockade remains in force. It contains discouraging elements and intimidating effects.”

This is where Obama’s ‘working visit’ to Cuba may help. A big faction of Republicans in the Congress is already on board with the idea of removing the sanctions, and, as Edward Isaac-Dovere wrote for Politico in the weekend, Obama’s visit “will only accelerate the pace of shifting sentiments in the US. Obama’s expressed skepticism about getting the embargo lifted during his presidency or at least before the expected lame duck session post-election. But with all the members of Congress and all the business leaders he brought with him (to Havana), and all the government changes and deals being announced as part of this trip, he’s hollowed out what little obstacles are left.” (Politico)

However, that Obama left Havana without being received by Fidel underlines that the hype over the ‘historic visit’ notwithstanding, US-Cuban relationship is a deeply wounded one and the healing will take time. The rapproche-ment is irreversible and the compass cannot change even under the new US President, because the US has understood essentially that it cannot decide Cuba’s future. However, as the New York Times put it, “old grievances and disputes marred a groundbreaking (Obama-Raul) meeting and underscored lingering impediments to a historic thaw” (here). The tense joint press conference which witnessed some spirited sparring testifies to this geopolitical reality that much as Cuba welcomes trade and investment from the US, it is not going to make political changes for the sake of normalisation with the US. (Transcript)

Nonetheless, to be sure, this is a legacy visit—first by a US President to Cuba in nearly 90 years. Will Obama follow through with a visit to Iran—the first by a US President since the Islamic Revolution in 1979? Don’t rule it out. You can never say never when it comes to this extraordinary American President breaking new ground in US foreign policy.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).