As if out of a hat, Cuba’s Raúl Castro and the U.S.’s Barack Obama pulled out the rabbit of diplomacy. Secret meetings in Canada and in the Vatican enabled Cuba and the U.S. to cut a deal to soften the U.S. embargo ( el bloqueo ) against the island nation that began on October 19, 1960. Political prisoners have already been released – the last three members of the Cuban Five arrived in Havana from their Florida prison; Granma , the official newspaper, welcomed them with the headline, “The Country’s Heart is Full.” Since 1992, the United Nations General Assembly has annually condemned the blockade (this year, the U.S. and Israel cast lonely votes for the embargo). Cuba has called for its lifting from the very first. A combination of hardline Cold Warriors in the U.S. and a powerful Cuban exile lobby prevented any movement. Mr. Obama’s promise in 2009 to meet with Mr. Castro in person had been pilloried, and so he did little in public to move this agenda. It came from out of the cold.
Brokering a ceasefire As Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro announced the new policy, other diplomats met in Havana, Cuba, to unravel another seemingly intractable conflict. A year after the embargo came into effect, in 1961, the Communists in Colombia opened up an armed struggle under their new group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC); this conflict has lasted since then with minor breaks, taking the lives of over two hundred thousand people. Previous attempts at a ceasefire in the 1980s and between 1999 and 2002 ended poorly. This time, after two years of talks, FARC declared a unilateral ceasefire for an indefinite time as long as the government troops did not attack their areas. Even as disagreements continue over outside monitors of the ceasefire, this is an enormously positive development. As FARC put it, the “useless episodes of blood” might now come to an end.
“ The U.S. Congress will not dismantle the embargo unless Cuba completely surrenders its experiments with socialism. ”
Few would have been tempted to suggest that these two major political events would have taken place in the waning days of 2014. From the standpoint of U.S. foreign policy, its two Latin American pillars have been an isolation of Cuban socialism and full support of the Colombian war against FARC. Now, both seem to unravel. Political blocs in the U.S. will certainly try to undermine the deal with Cuba, just as the Colombian right-wing will do its utmost to stymie any ceasefire with FARC. Nonetheless, the fact that these developments are on the table indicates that the tide of history in the Americas has shifted decisively.
A history of interventions U.S. policy in the Americas was set in 1823 by the Monroe Doctrine, which argued that the “protection” of the Americas was the responsibility of the U.S. What this meant, in effect, was that U.S. interests became paramount over that of the peoples of the hemisphere. When political forces emerged to challenge U.S. dominion, invasions and coups followed. The script was set with the U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846, out of which the U.S. seized a third of Mexican land, and with the U.S. intervention in Nicaragua in 1850. The history since then has been all too familiar, with names of deposed leaders known to schoolchildren in Latin America: Arbenz, Velasco Ibarra, Goulart, Allende, and Torrijos. It is this history of intervention that fuelled the Cuban revolution’s suspicion of U.S. motives. The 1,000-peso denomination in 1950s Cuba was known as the Casino or Gangster Note — Cuba had become, for the U.S., a place to outsource its mafia and whatever it deemed illegal. That is what the 1959 Cuban Revolution rejected.
Apart from Cuba, the rest of the hemisphere had succumbed to U.S. dominion through the 20th century. With the “Pink Tide” that began with the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1998, politics began to alter. It helped Latin America in the 2000s that the U.S. had become embroiled in the intractable War on Terror. Latin America declared its independence from the Monroe Doctrine. One after the other, elections brought to power forces of the Left, who then created platforms (ALBA and CELAC) that denied the U.S. a role in the region. Cuba, long isolated in Latin America, was now at the centre of things. A burst of Venezuelan investment and cut-price energy extended the life of the faltering Cuban economy. Colombia remained in the hands of the Right, but even this important country had to join the new organisations. Confidence in Latin America remains at a high point, despite the difficulties in many of the states with poor economic news. The region’s moral authority was lifted recently, when Uruguay’s highly popular outgoing president, José Mujica welcomed to Montevideo six prisoners — all victims of torture — from the U.S. penal colony in Guantánamo.
Quiet diplomacy Polls in the U.S. show that support for the embargo against Cuba has dropped. Mr. Obama, a consummate poll man, could not have been unaware of the political shift. Business lobbies — always a welcome voice in Washington DC — have wanted to gain access to the island. Exhausted and discarded workers in Haiti and the Dominican Republic need to be replaced. Vast markets for agricultural goods from the U.S. heartland need to be found. Cuba, the lobbies surmise, would provide both. Champagne was the drink of the day amongst the members of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, Inc., a lobby group based in Washington. These forces — that would prefer a Free Trade Area to a Five Year Plan — could take advantage of capital-starved Cuba. Camila Piñeiro Harnecker of the Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy tells me that there are people in Cuba “who favor more openness to foreign investment” for a growth-oriented policy. They do not see, she points out, that with this capital infusion “planning can be done differently” for the benefit of the people. An investment law passed this March might protect against the appetites of multinational capital. Although, outcomes of the embargo’s weakening are hard to predict.
Gestures of the Pink Tide Mr. Obama cautioned that the embargo is “codified in legislation,” which is unlikely to be undone by a Republican-controlled Congress. The 1996 Helms-Burton Act sets a high bar for the end of the sanctions, “the development of a free market economic system.” In other words, the U.S. Congress will not dismantle the embargo unless Cuba completely surrenders its experiments with socialism. Only if the short-term profits incline the business lobbies to fight against the pro-embargo sentiment could the legislation be annulled. But this would be catastrophic for the Cuban people, whose fight has been to preserve their sovereignty.
Colombian analyst Teo Ballvé tells me that FARC’s potential entry into “legal politics could only help steer the country in the right direction.” The long war has embittered Colombia’s politics. The current Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, has sought a Sri Lankan solution to the conflict — wanting to crush FARC rather than allow for any kind of peace agreement. Just a few days before FARC announced its ceasefire, Mr. Santos went out on Twitter to celebrate the death of some militants. FARC responded, “War can never be a source of joy, but only sorrow.” The celebration of violence is of course not isolated to Mr. Santos; the cult of the gun had been fundamental to the FARC as well. Exhaustion and futility pushes FARC out of the jungle. A slow re-emergence of the above ground Left in the guise of the Progressive Movement is measured by the victory of its leader, Gustavo Petro, to the mayoralty of Bogotá, Colombia’s capital. The arrival of FARC would certainly strengthen the Left — although Dr.Ballvé worries that the right wing would try its best not to allow FARC to come aboveground.
Across the hemisphere come plaudits for both the weakened embargo against Cuba and the ceasefire in Colombia. These are the latest gestures of the Pink Tide. Forces are arrayed for their failure. That would be too bad for the hemisphere.
(Vijay Prashad is the author of The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South. )