After being in place for half a century, the United States blockade of Cuba was never going to be easy to lift. But if there was one man who had the mandate to transform the way Washington deals with the world, it was President Barack Obama. His predecessor’s administration earned notoriety by invading a country half-way around the world and ‘legalising’ torture and other violations of human rights. But George W. Bush was also a disaster in his own hemisphere. Mending fences with Latin America requires the new President to be mindful of the sovereignty and national sentiments of every country in the region, big and small. On the eve of the Summit of the Americas — which got underway in Trinidad and Tobago on Friday — Mr. Obama took a small step in the direction of unclenching his country’s fist against Cuba. He lifted the ban on visits to Cuba by American citizens of Cuban origin. Other Americans, however, will continue to be prohibited from visiting the island nation. What is much worse, the inhuman sanctions Washington has maintained and even tried to tighten over the years will remain firmly in place. All that Mr. Obama was prepared to say on this was that his government would consider talking to the Cubans about further steps if Havana “reciprocated.”
Since Cuba does not prohibit commerce with or travel to the U.S., it is not clear what “reciprocal” steps it is meant to undertake. Ever since the victory of the Revolution led by Fidel Castro, Washington has not hidden its desire to dictate to the Cuban people what kind of government and society they should have. Sometimes, this pressure has taken the form of aggression and subversion, including a series of attempts to assassinate Dr. Castro, and sometimes economic coercion. None of this worked but the Obama team is yet to learn proper lessons from the experience. Thus, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said she wants to see the Cuban government “open up its society” and meet other conditions before there is any further relaxation of the blockade. That the U.S. does not prescribe such “openness” as a precondition for trade with the rest of the world, say, for Saudi Arabia or Egypt or Kuwait, exposes the nature of the demand. Latin America is more independent, confident, and assertive than it ever was, which is why it is increasingly standing by the sovereignty of the Cuban people. Nor is Washington able to arm-twist governments the way it used to do. If President Obama is sincere and serious about wanting to lead his country into an era of constructive relations with Cuba, he must end U.S. support for terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles, release the five Cuban nationals wrongly imprisoned for espionage, and lift the blockade on Cuba here and now.