The president’s decision to reset our relationship with Cuba, important as it was, was in some ways foretold, even inevitable. The policy we had in place and obdurately held on to for over five decades was absurd and unjust, and therefore unsustainable. In fact, it was not even a policy: it was a ridiculously overlong tantrum that served as an excuse for not having to develop and implement a real and sensible policy towards Cuba.
Now is when we will begin to trace the contours of such a real and long-needed policy. What will that policy be?
It is hard to tell. The variables are many; as are the obstacles, and the tantrums that still play on, now at a community, partisan and individual level, rather than at a national level.
There’s hope partisan opposition will soon fade away, thus making room for the new policy to develop and gain strength. As long as a sufficient number of Republicans continue to act as childish bores, bent on opposing all and every move Barack Obama makes, there will always be a new reason for a tantrum. As soon as the president takes another measure unrelated to Cuba, he will draw the concentrated fire of this wild bunch. The Cuba issue will then be replaced by this new Obama move, just as Cuba took the place of the president’s daring move on immigration, and the latter the place of Obamacare. By late 2016, the anti-Obama crusaders will have shot at so many targets — because Obama shows every intention of using his executive powers unabashedly — that the lunacy of their conduct will be evidenced in the score of the next presidential election.
But there is another, bigger, obstacle for the development of a cogent Cuba policy that will be much harder to overcome: After over 50 years of turning our back to Cuba, there are very few Americans (diplomats, academics, not to mention politicians) around who know anything close to what is needed to craft the new American policy towards Cuba.
I happened to be in Cuba sharing the dais with the best and the brightest of our stateside experts on ‘Cubanology’ by the time the news of the thaw between Cuba and the United States made headlines. And though I was impressed with their love and enthusiasm regarding the topic they all have chosen as their field of studies, I am afraid their voices will be shouted down by other Cubanologists. Most of these are of the from-a-distance school of studies (meaning they have not set foot in Cuba for decades) and more used to the rough-and-tumble of what passes for Cuba policy debate. Even the usual suspects among our politicians and lobbyists — a couple of undersecretaries of state for Latin America among them — who pose as experts and appear on our TV screens whenever Cuba makes the news, mostly know little about Cuba and simply recite a long list of slogans they regurgitate whenever they are in front of a camera.
I was appalled by the exchange between my Cuban-American congresswoman and a CNN anchor over the euphoric reaction to the news on the streets of Havana, where she claimed the reporter in situ was being controlled by the Cuban government and misinforming the American public, and the anchor defended the integrity of his colleague, the network’s correspondent in Cuba. I was there at the time, and I know CNN’s coverage was accurate. Sadly, this same member of the House of Representatives claimed not too long ago that regular Cubans are still not allowed into the hotels where foreigners stay, a practice that ceased to exist more than 10 years ago. And these talking heads that invariably appear when Cuba is in the news can easily get away with their arrogant display of ignorance because the American public simply cannot discern what is true about Cuba or who the ‘experts’ on the topic really are. The more Americans are allowed to travel to Cuba, the less credibility these types will have.
But the true crafters of the policy we are in search of, and of the future of this newborn relationship between this pair of distant neighbors, will be those Cubans who will now be able to travel back and forth to Cuba more often, and send and lend more money to Cubans in the island. The key to what is to come is the way the Cuban people — and I include those living in Cuba and those living abroad, the vast majority of them in the United States States — take avail of the opening the new environment provides for more intense, fluid and continuous interaction.
Some of the most recalcitrant on both sides are simply too old to change. But if I were in, say, Marco Rubio’s shoes, the first thing I would be thinking about this Holiday Season is how can I find a good reason to visit Cuba as soon as possible; and I would probably find one very good one by inserting myself into the negotiations that just begun. I am certain that, even without changing his mind one bit — he will not apply for membership in the Partido Comunista de Cuba, that’s for sure — he will come back from Cuba with a different attitude than the one he had before visiting there.
It has happened to every single Cuban-American I know, no matter how hard his or her line was before taking that step of sensing the island first-hand. And that new attitude is the kind of tool those who end up designing our future policy towards Cuba should have: Conozca Cuba primero (Know Cuba first).
Seize the moment with the required boldness, Mr. Rubio!
José Manuel Pallí is president of Miami-based World Wide Title. He can be reached a email@example.com.