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12/13/13 - Los Angeles Times - Is it time for the US to shake Cuba's hand

Tom Hayden

It hasn't been easy. Obama favored diplomatic recognition and lifting the
embargo as far back as when he was a state legislator in Illinois, and he
has steadily eased restrictions on travel since taking office.

But many on the American right, especially octogenarian Cuban immigrants
from the Bay of Pigs generation, have stubbornly resisted normalizing
relations with Cuba. Now, though, it seems as if the process is developing
a momentum of its own.

Part of the reason involves changes taking place in Cuba. Cubans today are
living in the "pre-post-Castro era," in the charming phrase of the late
Alfredo Guevara, a close friend of Fidel's and a longtime leader in arts
and film. Under Raul Castro, the nation has gradually opened its private
sector to a new generation of Cuban entrepreneurs, as reported in a recent
study by Richard Feinberg, a top advisor to President Clinton on
inter-American affairs. The Cubans are moving toward market socialism, with
a strong state protecting its widely admired healthcare, education and
social programs.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, devastating Cuba's economy, it was
widely predicted that a popular anti-Castro revolution would quickly
follow, as happened in Eastern Europe. But that was almost 25 years ago,
and it never happened - not because Cuba is a perfect police state but
because the Cuban people deeply prefer a peaceful transition to a future
they themselves choose. Vain attempts to return to the past, or plunge into
civil war, are not real alternatives compared with gradual evolution.

Perhaps the most serious evidence of a sea change is the fact that 450,000
Cuban Americans now travel back and forth to Cuba legally each year to
visit relatives. They also send remittances, last year more than $2
billion. This process is occurring despite the opposition of the supposedly
all-powerful Cuban lobby in [2]Congress. Why? It is an irreversible tide,
and the two countries understand this.

[3]YEAR IN REVIEW: 6 developments that changed Latin America in 2013

Both Secretary of State [4]John F. Kerry and Ricardo Alarcon, the longtime
retired Cuban foreign minister, [5]United Nations representative and
National Assembly president - whom I have interviewed extensively over the
years - used identical terminology recently in describing the Cuban
diaspora as "effective ambassadors" during the transition to more normal
relations between the two countries.

In Kerry's (and Obama's) version, these Cubans are irresistible ambassadors
of democracy and consumer capitalism. Alarcon too sees the potential for
good in the exchange: "They can bring some different elements here, maybe
in fashion and music. So you will get a mutual influence. I don't really
see a problem with that."

He thinks Americans who travel to Cuba will also gain from the experience.
Visiting Cuba, he says, will challenge "the mentality of those Cuban
Americans who think everyone from Cuba is a terrorist."

There are still many obstacles to normalizing relations, of course, but
they can be overcome gradually. It would help to have a special envoy to
serve in the way George Mitchell did during the protracted Irish peace
talks. Obama's next step should be to remove Cuba from the [6]State
Department's list of nations embracing state-sponsored terrorism. That
no-brainer would ease Cuba's ability to engage in financial transactions

After that, Cuba and the United States should diplomatically arrange a
sequenced release of prisoners who have become sticking points in relations
between the two countries. Cuba should release the American contractor Alan
Gross, who sits in prison after taking prohibited advanced communications
equipment into Cuba on multiple occasions. The U.S. should release four
imprisoned members of the so-called Cuban Five back to Cuba.  The men were
convicted in Miami of conspiracy to commit espionage and other charges
after the Cuban air force shot down two planes carrying anti-Castro Cuban

Obama recently returned one of the five, Rene Gonzales, to serve his
probation time in Havana. If the release of the other four seems
politically impossible, consider the fact that in 1979 [7]Jimmy Carter
released four Puerto Ricans convicted of shooting up the U.S. Congress and
trying to kill the president in 1952. After he did so, in a carefully
separate but sequenced action, the Cubans released thousands of political
prisoners, including many Americans.

A big impediment to normalization is the Helms-Burton Act, which grants
Congress broad powers in determining U.S. relations with Cuba and prohibits
recognition of a Cuban government that includes either of the Castro
brothers. Obama will have to be determined and nimble in getting around
congressional opposition, something he's shown himself able to do.

It's time. Obama should want his legacy to include being the first
president in the last half-century to recognize its long-estranged
neighbor. Let's hope the handshake at Mandela's funeral - with the whole
world watching - signaled his intent.

Tom Hayden is the author, most recently, of "Inspiring Participatory
Democracy." He is currently writing a history of Cuba's revolution and the
New Left in America.

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