After 52 years, US and Cuba are talking again

This week, Barack Obama announced the US would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, but it’s actually America that’s coming in out of the cold

Cubans queue to apply for tourist visas to visit the US at the American Interests Building in Havana. Photograph: Meredith Kohut/New York Times

Cubans queue to apply for tourist visas to visit the US at the American Interests Building in Havana. Photograph: Meredith Kohut/New York Times

 

When foreign ministers from the 21 republics that then made up the Organisation of Americas States (OAS) gathered in the Uruguayan beach resort of Punta del Este in January 1962, US secretary of state Dean Rusk had just one goal: the expulsion of Cuba from the organisation.

Washington’s stand-off with the new communist regime across the Florida Straits was just months away from the missile crisis and Rusk was determined to isolate this new revolutionary foe.

Many regional heavyweights were opposed to the move, sensitive as they were to any hint of US interference in the internal affairs of its neighbours. Even so, none dared join Fidel Castro’s top diplomat in voting against expulsion. Instead Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Mexico abstained, and Rusk had the votes he needed to kick the Cubans out.

But the days are long gone when the OAS was the diplomatic expression of US dominance across the western hemisphere.

Isolated

In part this is because of the region’s political turn to the left since the millennium. From the Central American isthmus to the River Plate, Havana now finds it has friends in presidential palaces. But even countries not ideologically sympathetic to the communist island have developed closer ties with it as Washington’s regional influence has waned in the wake of the debacle in Iraq.

If nothing else, this week’s breakthrough will allow Obama to avoid diplomatic embarrassment at April’s OAS summit in Panama. Juan Carlos Varela, the free market president of the host nation, has invited Cuba to attend the gathering even though it is still excluded from the organisation.

In 2009, over the objections of Rusk’s successor Hillary Clinton, the OAS did in fact vote to revoke Cuba’s expulsion from the organisation.

The island said it was not interested in rejoining what it always denounced as an instrument of US imperialist power. But Havana has said it will attend the Panama summit and Obama’s move this week will allow him to play the conciliator at it rather than sit on the margins as the region’s presidents fete Cuban leader Raúl Castro.

New forum

Set up in 2011 it has the same membership as the OAS but crucially with Cuba included and the US and Canada left out.

As if to emphasise the point, in January the second Celac summit was held in Havana and produced a declaration demanding an end of the US blockade against the “sisterly nation” of Cuba.

The US once thought of the western hemisphere as its backyard. Now it has to work harder to exert its natural influence. One motivation for this week’s historic move was recognition that to do so an increasingly counterproductive Cuba policy had to change.

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