Monday, December 22, 2014


Well, the President certainly knows how to turn the page, and good for him.

In his action last week he abandoned two tenets at the heart of American policy for the past five decades: that it somehow served U.S. interests to withhold full diplomatic relations from Cuba and to pressure that nation through economic sanctions.

In the first instance, his actions match his words: our governments have agreed to negotiate the relatively minor steps needed to establish embassies and to exchange ambassadors.

In the second, there’s a gap. President Obama made clear his view that our policy is wrong at its core: “It does not serve our interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse…we should not allow U.S. sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens that we seek to help.”

Yet when it comes our economic sanctions – which are not the main cause of Cubans’ economic difficulties, but which certainly add to them – he left the core of our policy intact, easing sanctions in limited ways by using only a fraction of his executive authority. It would seem that more action is possible in the next two years.

These actions came at the end of an 18-month negotiation that produced, as the governments presented it, an exchange of three jailed Cuban agents for a Cuban who had spied for the United States, and Cuba’s unilateral release of Alan Gross.

Many Americans have run for their scorecards to figure who won, producing what seems to me to be a sterile discussion that involves not so much two sides of a debate but rather two completely incompatible frames of reference. If you liked the 50-year policy and wanted to preserve it for use as leverage in a negotiation a year or 50 from now, then there is no justification for change absent a regime change in Cuba. If you thought the policy was counterproductive, then correcting it is not a “concession” to anyone; it’s simply a favor to ourselves.

I’m in the latter camp.

I’ll have more to say about the economic impact, the President’s authority, the diplomatic future, and the wonderful debate that the President has unleashed especially among Republicans.

For now, there’s the question of recognition, and the discussion of it reflects how far removed our Cuba policy has been from norms and practices used in the rest of our foreign policy.

Since the Carter Administration, we have recognized Cuba in the sense that we have had diplomatic relations. Our mission in Havana, called an interests section and legally a part of the Swiss embassy, is in our old embassy building, as is the Cubans’ in Washington.

Now we will have full diplomatic relations, which will involve calling it an embassy, changing the sign outside, and eventually making the person in charge a United States Ambassador to Cuba. But recognition occurred long ago.

Diplomatic recognition means that one state recognizes that another controls a national territory and carries out government functions within it – no more. There is no moral or political approval attached to the idea of establishing a Havana embassy, any more than our embassy in Beijing expresses approval of Chinese communism, or the embassy in Riyadh indicates support of Saudi human right practices.

Only in the case of Cuba, amid Senator Rubio’s fainting spells, is it necessary to explain all this.

The American policy of non-recognition, followed by three decades of less-than-full diplomatic relations, is a vestige of the 1960’s and 1970’s when nearly all the American Republics, as the term went, broke diplomatic relations with the socialist government in Cuba in order to isolate it. (Canada and Mexico were the exceptions.) At long last, President Obama is abandoning the idiotic pretense that we can isolate Cuba all by ourselves.

The Cubans, it should be noted, are not gloating because they understand all the above. And in the specifics of this case, they know that the President’s posture is far from approving. We still have the embargo, the Helms-Burton law and the democracy programs that it authorizes, and the promise of continued human rights criticism.

The symbolism of establishing an embassy has far more to do with the United States than with the Cuban revolution. In reality, it simply provides a higher-level channel through which to deliver our messages. If, as seems the case, President Obama will use that channel to develop stronger communication and cooperation, then that will be the change that counts.

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