An Opportunity to Normalize Relations with Cuba

For the last two centuries, relations between the U.S. and the Latin American and Caribbean countries have been clouded by suspicion and resentment towards the U.S. It hasn’t helped that U.S. governments have, intermittently, undermined democratic governments and promoted what can be euphemistically called “regime change”. Nowhere has U.S. intervention been as relentless and damaging as in its relations with Cuba, where U.S. antagonism toward the Castro brothers and their successor has benefited no one, while causing tremendous suffering to the Cuban people.

Henry Kissinger was certainly not thinking about Cuba when he said, “It’s not a matter of what is true that counts but a matter of what is perceived to be true.” This could well be applied to the supposed threat that Cuba poses to U.S. democracy. For almost 60 years the U.S. has imposed an embargo on Cuba. Yet, rather than achieving its goal to provoke the fall of the Castro brothers’ regime, the embargo only made life miserable for most Cubans, limiting their access not only to common goods but also to some vital medicines.

On several UN health-related missions to Cuba, I was able to see how eager the Cubans were for a normalization of relations with the US. They understand the difference between the hardships caused to them by U.S. governments and the American people, whom they feel are also interested in improving interactions with the Cubans.

In 1985, I attended a meeting in New York between Argentinian Nobel Peace laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel and former President Jimmy Carter. I was a translator for Mr. Pérez Esquivel. One objective of the meeting was to discuss the situation in Central America, a region ravaged by war. I was impressed when President Carter, with complete modesty, asked Pérez Esquivel, “And what do you think, Adolfo, that we should be doing in Central America?”

Pérez Esquivel told President Carter that Central Americans resented U.S. intervention in their internal affairs, and that they had understandable grievances against the oligarchies that governed their countries. Such grievances were the root cause of the wars in that region. Carter’s approach would have been unthinkable during the Trump administration.

The Obama administration made determined efforts to improve relations with Cuba. Obama correctly believed that isolating Cuba had failed to advance U.S. interests and that time was overdue to reestablish diplomatic relations with Havana. In 2014, Barak Obama and Raúl Castro announced that their governments would restore full diplomatic ties. This was followed by a series of measures including loosened restrictions on remittances and travel, and removing Cuba’s designation as a sponsor of terrorism.

Instead of continuing these measures, the Trump administration doubled up the actions against Cuba, reversing significant achievements of the Obama administration. The US government has curtailed trade and tourism, placing severe restrictions on commerce with the island. In 2019, Trump banned group educational exchanges, curbed family remittances and tightened economic sanctions.

A Biden-Harris administration has arrived at the right time to correct past policy mistakes. Some limited actions could be immediately implemented, including artistic, educational and medical exchanges. These could be followed by a full normalization of relations. A collaboration on a promising lung cancer treatment currently taking place between Cuban and American doctors could be significantly expanded and save lives.

Normal relations would benefit the Cuban people, on the one hand, and U.S. tourism and business on the other. It would also improve the image of the U.S. in Latin America, tarnished by a long legacy of failed U.S. interventions.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”