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Cuba Libre

22 Dec 2014

The first time I took part in a debate about American recognition of a foreign power, the year was 1968, I was barely a teen, and my soldier dad was furious at the notion that we establish diplomatic relations with China, a Communist country. He and I argued about Communism and freedom as we watched on TV the Chicago police riot on the streets outside the Democratic National Convention. Although America had recognized the Soviet Union only months after the Bolshevik Revolution, almost 20 years after Mao Tse-tung seized power we had failed to recognize his new government. Five years later even America's premier anti-Communist, Richard Nixon, saw the value of normalizing relations with China.

Then as now part of the discussion was clouded by ideological disdain of Communism, even though diplomatic recognition is not a matter of approving of a government. Recognition allows us to exchange ambassadors and open embassies, which are critical steps to communicating and to keeping the peace, as we discovered in 1962.

The American economic embargo, if it ever worked at all, stopped working so long ago that it remains a relic, like the 60-year-old American cars driven on the streets of Havana. Countries around the world trade with Cuba, so it has all the goods it can afford - which is not very much, sad to say. Communism will continue to stifle the country's economic or humanitarian growth until the Castro brothers die of old age, which could be any day now. Most of the country is under 30 years of age; they have no memories of Fidel Castro's dalliance with the Soviets or of Battista, the dictator he replaced. There is no reason to think that, given half a chance at a different life, Cuba will tolerate Communism more than a decade from now. That is soon enough.

America's cold war with Cuba was not a foregone conclusion when the Fidelistas took Havana in the late 1950s. Castro was a revolutionary bumpkin who knew he was out of his league, and was smart enough to seek patronage. He turned to America, the big elephant in the Caribbean living room, but Eisenhower's cold warriors suspected Castro was a commie in sheep's clothing. The Republican paranoics were not completely off the mark, but the embargo forced Castro to seek solace elsewhere - the Soviet Union under Nikita Khruschev. Within a few years the Cuban Missile Crisis almost caused a nuclear war that would have destroyed America, Russia, possibly most of the northern hemisphere. What saved the day? Diplomatic channels that existed only because we had normal diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, even while we were at each other's throats.

That seems like ancient history to many. As our election results demonstrate in every single election cycle, Americans are impatient with the lessons of history. This more than anything else gave President Obama his opportunity to lead the nation, and Cuba, hand-in-hand out of the shadows and into the light of normal diplomatic relations. Those who oppose the change can only sputter that the change will not turn Cuba into a paradise. Cuba Libre? Hardly, at least not for now, but when did mere diplomatic recognition ever work such magic? For now this is a new beginning today with prospects for a better tomorrow. America, and Cuba, can use more of those.

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