Obama’s engagement with Cuba deserves backing of US Congress

America needs to rethink its relationship with neighbour after decades-long economic embargo – a throwback to the cold war mentality – has proved futile

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 March, 2016, 1:35am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 March, 2016, 1:35am

The collapse of the South African apartheid regime is an example of diplomatic and economic isolation being effective in forcing change on a defiant government. But it is an exception. It has to be remembered that international support for the sanctions regime was unprecedented and its like may not be seen again. There may be room to argue that sanctions helped bring about a negotiated resolution of the Iran nuclear issue. But in the end it was achieved by engagement, not confrontation. And engagement has led to the first visit to Cuba by a US president in 88 years.

Following the resumption of diplomatic relations, the visit is another step – the US Congress willing – towards unwinding an economic embargo against Cuba that began before the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and so far has outlasted its cold war antecedents by a quarter of a century. What really sets Obama’s visit apart is that it represents a sea change from relentless containment, now an aberration of a foreign policy that normalised relations with China decades ago. From a bungled invasion by Cuban exiles to assassination bids on Fidel Castro to a pitiless embargo, every attempt at regime change has failed. Obama’s visit officially recognises the futility of it all.

The embargo was triggered by the communist overthrow of a corrupt American-backed dictator. It was sustained by mistrust of communism and fear among elected lawmakers of the voting power of a small but vocal Cuban minority.

Addressing the Cuban people on Tuesday, Obama said he had come to bury the last remnants of the cold war in the Americas. The resumption of diplomatic relations has already resulted in big dividends, such as a commercial air-traffic deal last month for more than 100 daily flights, boosting the flow of tourist dollars and enhancing the image of the US in Latin America.

Obama vowed not to impose America’s political and economic system on Cuba. But some US congressmen remain unconvinced that improved ties should come about without reforms by the Cuban government. That plays on criticism of Obama that blames his foreign policy mindset for perceptions of uncertainty in America’s exercise of global power.

The thaw between Washington and Havana is a reminder that the cold war mentality has given way to the threat of terrorism and militant extremism. It is in the security interests of the whole region that Congress be quickly convinced to bring Cuba in from the cold, economically as well as diplomatically.