With his decision to end over a half century of enmity with Cuba, President Obama has acted in a fashion worthy of his Nobel Peace Prize. For over 50 years, successive U.S. presidents have enforced a policy of hostility against the Castro regime in Cuba. Starting with John F. Kennedy, successive American presidents unleashed a covert invasion of the island, ordered the CIA to engage in economic sabotage, sought to poison Castro, and even to make his beard fall out. An economic embargo has been enforced for more than a half century. Cuba has been listed as a terrorist nation to this day.
What America could never see was that the regime was gaining, not losing, support at home and abroad from the American hostility. The U.S. was furious when Castro dispatched his troops to support the liberation movement in Angola and to defend against the South African invasion into Namibia. But Castro understood that apartheid South Africa was the terrorist, not Mandela and those who struggled for freedom. Not surprisingly, when Mandela was finally released, he hailed the Cubans as saviors — as the rest of the world understood.
President Obama is surely right to acknowledge finally that the U.S. policy has been an abject failure. Our European allies are trading with Cuba. Our neighbors to the South demand that the leader of Cuba — now Raul Castro — be invited to the Summit of the Americas. Our half-century effort to isolate Cuba has turned against us.
Eventually, walls must fall. The causes for old hatreds grow dim. The world changes. The embittered generations grow old. Nixon dismantled the wall with China, even though the regime remained communist. Israel and Germany found a way to create good relations after the most searing of horrors. Mandela led his people to make peace with those who had oppressed them.
With normalization, the hemisphere becomes more stable. U.S. security is served, for now cooperation with Cuba can deepen. Already Cuban doctors earn our praise in Sierra Leone in the fight against Ebola. Cuba is already an ally, not an adversary, in the war on drugs.
The president’s act opens the way for change. As he stated, change is hard. It is particularly so in this case, where many former Cuban refugees and their descendants remain embittered, as illustrated by the outrage of Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz. The president cannot end the embargo on his own; only Congress can do that. His nomination of a new ambassador will have to be confirmed by the Senate. But the president can lift many restrictions on travel and exchange. He can expand efforts to move Cuba into the new age of telecommunications. He can expand areas of cooperation. More families will be reunified. American relations with Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, and others will not be fouled by our conflict with Cuba.
What comes from this is unknown. Strident opponents argue that the big winners will be the Castro brothers, that repression will increase even as Cuba’s battered economy gets a boost. But opening relations with Cuba allows an honest exchange about human rights. It opens dialogue, rather than shuts it down. What is needed now is the good will to engage, thawing the hatreds and the fears that froze the separation for over a half-century.
It is telling that Pope Francis, who served in Argentina before assuming the Papacy, played a critical role in helping to bring this moment into being. The Papacy was a staunch ally for America in the Cold War. And now, the Pope has helped free America of one of the last relics of that Cold War past. A new day has dawned. It will bring what we make of it. But surely a new possibility has opened.
Jesse Jackson is the founder of Rainbow/PUSH.