Reflections on Changes in US-Cuba Relations

by Stan Hastey, guest columnist

Part One

       Growing up in Mexico as a missionary kid gave me a different perspective on my native land. Whether always welcomed or not, I could not help but filter my own early sense of patriotism through the lenses of classmates. Their take on the United States was that of the colossus to the North that had stolen a huge section of their country in an illegitimate war and given it a new name—Texas.

       When Fidel Castro and his revolutionary compatriots seized control of Cuba on January 1, 1959, I was 14. In Torreón, the city in northern Mexico where my family lived during my junior and senior high school years (except for 11th grade in 1960-1961 when I attended Polytechnic High School in Fort Worth) spontaneous street celebrations broke out. It would take me a good while longer to understand better why Mexicans took such glee in the triumph of the Castro brothers, Che Guevara and the other bearded firebrands on a Caribbean island most of them never dreamed of visiting.

       What the crowds in Torreón and countless other cities and towns throughout Latin America were cheering was that an apparently rag-tag bunch of indigenous dreamers had run off a military dictator put in power by the United States of America. (This brings to mind another bit of hubris that we U.S. citizens tend to have, that of referring to the USA as “America” as though we owned the entire continent. My school friends, by the way, liked to make the point that the formal name of their country is the “United States of Mexico.”)

       Decades later, as leader of the Alliance of Baptists, I would have the extraordinary privilege of visiting Cuba 30 times, often in the company of delegations from Alliance-affiliated churches exploring partnerships with congregations of the Fraternidad de Iglesias Bautistas de Cuba. Nothing I did during 20 years with the Alliance gave me greater satisfaction.

       Often when speaking in Alliance churches about our Cuba connections, questions would be raised about why Cubans would put up with a communist dictatorship that had resulted in frequently severe deprivations of even the most basic of commodities. Reflecting on such inquiries, it occurred to me one day that on Cuba’s historical time line, the only period during which modern Cuba has been ruled by Cubans is 1959 forward. (By “modern” I mean since Christopher Columbus’ first landing in 1492 as he sought a route to India. Truly indigenous native peoples had lived in what is now Cuba for centuries before Columbus’ two visits.)

       In other words, Cubans themselves have been in charge of their own destiny for a mere 56 years of the 522-year colonial and post-colonial history of the island. As US citizens it is simply impossible for us to understand the depth of nationalistic fervor in Cuba about this historical legacy.

#  #  #

Part Two

       Long gone is the immediate euphoria many sensed last December when President Raúl Castro of Cuba and U.S. President Barack Obama announced jointly from Havana and Washington that diplomatic ties between the long-estranged nations were to be restored. Since then the two leaders have met in what was reported as a significant exchange of views during the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April. In addition to this face-to-face encounter between heads of state, diplomatic teams from both countries have met twice—first in Havana, then in Washington—in what have been described as frank and difficult discussions.

        No one should be surprised, let alone dismayed, that the negotiations have been tense. After all, 50-plus years of outright hostilities cannot be undone in the course of a few meetings. Both governments are under pressure from factions within their own countries to preserve the status quo.

        Specifically on the U.S. side, the pieces of the proposed new relationship requiring congressional approval face determined opposition within key committees on both sides of Capitol Hill. In the Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker of Tennessee must deal with fierce opposition from two Cuban Americans on his panel—fellow Republican and announced presidential candidate Marco Rubio of Florida and the ranking Democrat, Robert Menendez of New Jersey. The latter was Corker’s predecessor as committee chairman before Republicans gained control of the Senate last year. For his part, Corker is one of only a handful of Republican senators whose inclinations are to bridge differences and produce results.

        Should Corker be inclined to move legislation dealing with U.S.-Cuba relations, he can count on the unabashed support of fellow Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, who for years has advocated the normalization of diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba. Flake is not the only Republican senator who wants to see an end to antiquated policies that hurt both countries. Numerous others are from states where farmers are hurting for overseas markets to sell their produce. Virtually every national association of farmers long has lobbied hard for the restoration of economic ties. Some of the most intense pressure has been directed at senators from southern states that comprise the rice belt.

        For years, Republican governors of some of these states likewise have themselves lobbied Washington to remove trade barriers that hurt their economies. Among these is Alabama, whose port city of Mobile is the sister city to Havana, Cuba’s capital. Cuba imports 70 percent of the rice consumed by the island’s 11 million people, most of it from China and Vietnam. Common sense has it that Cuba would pay a lot less to have rice shipped from Mobile to Havana, thus benefiting both the island’s economy and that of rice farmers in Alabama.

        Another clear example of the same economic incentive for restored trade is Louisiana. Now that the shipping industry in and around New Orleans is flourishing following years of slow recovery from Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, ships moving goods from the Crescent City to Havana would amount to a boon to Louisiana’s economy, as well as that of several Midwestern states that ship corn, wheat and other agricultural produce down the Mississippi to the Port of New Orleans. Governors of both parties from these states long have pressured Washington to restore relations, knowing that trade with Cuba would provide relief to their beleaguered farm industries.

        Unfortunately, prospects for favorable action in the House of Representatives are more troublesome, particularly within the lower chamber’s Committee on Foreign Affairs. Panel Chairman Edward R. Royce of California repeatedly has scolded President Obama since the announcement last December that the administration would seek to renew diplomatic relations with Havana. Besides Royce, the House panel includes Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban American whose opposition to the Castro regime is legendary. A former chairwoman of the committee, Royce refers to her as “Chairman Emeritus.”

        Further, Ros-Lehtinen sits on the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, whose ranking minority member is Rep. Albio Sires of New Jersey, another Cuban American long opposed to changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba. The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, also is fiercely opposed to normalizing relations with Havana.

        In addition, the House Committee on Appropriations will have to approve funds in President Obama’s budget to reopen a U.S. embassy in Cuba as well as any other changes in policy requiring tax dollars. Although Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky takes a measured approach toward renewed relations with Cuba, he must deal with and somehow accommodate another Cuban American member, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Miami, a determined foe of any liberalization in U.S.-Cuba policy. Further, Diaz-Balart is a key player on the Appropriations subcommittee that would first approve funds needed for liberalizing relations. That panel’s chairwoman, Rep. Kay Granger of Texas, is yet another outspoken Republican opposing changes in Cuba policy.

        Despite all these challenges, the conventional wisdom in Washington is that the new policies now in process of implementation will take hold and carry the day in the end. One reason for such hope is the key role being played by Pope Francis, who personally met with and helped persuade Raúl Castro and Barack Obama to seek to normalize diplomatic and economic ties. By now it is clear that when this pope speaks even heads of state listen.

        Another reason for hope is the skill of Cuba specialists in Washington who long have lobbied for significant changes in U.S. policy with our Caribbean neighbor. One of the best of these is Mavis Anderson of the Latin America Working Group, a partner organization with the Alliance of Baptists. For the past two decades, the Alliance has depended on and supported the LAWG in its tireless efforts lobbying Congress and a succession of administrations of both parties to normalize relations with Havana.

Rev. Dr. Stan Hastey, a veteran Cuba traveler and US-Cuba policy analyst, is the interim preaching minister at First Baptist Church, Washington, DC. He served for 20 years as director of the Alliance of Baptists.