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March 4, 2014

It's time for warmer relations with Cuba

By Cary Brunswick
The Daily Star

---- — It has been 55 years since Fidel Castro and his bands of nationalist fighters and supporters took over the government of Cuba. The United States immediately took issue with that regime change, and ever since has had serious problems with the tiny nation just south of the Florida Keys.

I was about 10 when Castro overthrew Fulgencio Batista, Cuba’s corrupt president who was friendly to U.S. business and corporate interests. Havana was like the Las Vegas of the Caribbean. I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about, except for hearing the media and adults say Castro was a communist.

And, now, I still can’t grasp what all the hang-ups are about. It is time for the U.S. to get over it and normalize relations with Cuba. There has been some progress since President Barack Obama took office, but we need to move more quickly.

Historically, it seems like many of the two nations’ differences have been spurred by our own antagonism and Cold War-based fears of a communist virus spreading through the world. And then there is the fact that Castro threw out the American corporations that were running the sugar plantations, and hiked taxes on U.S. imports.

President Dwight Eisenhower responded by restricting Cuban sugar imports and banning nearly all our exports to Cuba, which then turned to the Soviet Union as a trade partner and political ally.

In 1961, we organized an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Castro. The Bay of Pigs debacle fanned the flames of Cuban nationalism and mistrust even further. Add to that the complete economic embargo and travel ban instituted by President John F. Kennedy and the stage was set for the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

It seems surprising now that we didn’t just send in troops to get rid of Castro. But that was what scared Castro when he invited the Soviets to place missiles on the island. Older folks certainly remember those tense days of the missile crisis when Kennedy got the Soviets to back off.

The basics of our relations with Cuba have not changed much in the last half century. Despite the end of the Cold War, the economic embargo and diplomatic alienation persist. The main sticking point has remained Cuba’s lack of democratic elections.

However, if we used democracy as a barometer for economic and diplomatic relations, we would have to eliminate numerous other nations. They include China, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Vietnam, Malaysia and many other Asian and Africa countries.

Our laws also have stipulated that Cuba must show progress in human rights, including a free press and releasing political prisoners. Try applying that litmus test to some of our economic and political allies.

Why don’t we forbid trade with China and break off relations with Saudi Arabia? Obviously, we believe we do not need Cuba. It comes down to pragmatism rather than principle. But we would be better off with Cuba as an ally rather than isolated as an official non-entity.

Another problem is that we classify Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, a designation that has remained since initiated by President Ronald Reagan in 1982 because Castro supported the rebel causes in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Cuba does not sponsor terrorism and it’s been more than 20 years since Castro said his nation would no longer be involved in supporting insurgents abroad. In 2012, the U.S. State Department reported that there was no evidence that Cuba was offering training or weapons to any terrorist groups.

So, why does the designation remain? The reason must be political because it is not based on fact.

But, as I stated earlier, Obama has taken some actions to ease our stance toward Cuba. In 2009, he fulfilled a campaign promise by lifting some restrictions on family travel to the island and allowing telecommunications firms to provide more cellular and satellite services there. Also, we can export medical supplies and agricultural products under certain conditions.

Experts say a major factor holding up more progress is the case of an American government telecommunications subcontractor who was jailed in Cuba for alleged anti-government activities. We want him released, but Cuba says no way unless we free a few Cuban political prisoners we are holding.

Despite that issue, we need to make more progress in normalizing relations. The U.N. has condemned our economic embargo for 22 consecutive years, and recent surveys show that a majority of Americans support diplomatic relations and an end to the trade and travel embargoes.

A lot was made of the handshake between Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro at the Nelson Mandela funeral in December. We need to translate that friendly gesture into a friendly relationship.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.