The release of an American imprisoned in Cuba signals the opening of talks to normalize relations between Washington and Havana. This is both huge and long overdue.
Barack Obama was first elected president on a campaign based on hope and change. One of the changes I was hoping for was the lifting of the US trade embargo against Cuba, to let American travelers visit the island nation freely, as the rest of the world does.
Five years later, I’d pretty much given up on that hope. There seemed to be no real movement on either side to change the dynamic between the two countries.
All that changed today, when President Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro simultaneously announced plans to move toward normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba.
Big day. Historic day. Huge. And it should’ve happened decades ago.
The details are this official White House announcement.
The President said in part:
“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests. Neither the American nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that’s rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.
“Consider that for more than 35 years, we’ve had relations with China, a far larger country also governed by a communist party. Nearly two decades ago, we reestablished relations with Vietnam, where we fought a war that claimed more Americans than any Cold War confrontation.
“I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.”
The signal for this massive policy shift was the sight of Alan Gross being flown out of Havana and landing in Washington DC, where he’s from.
Mr. Gross (no relation to IBIT) had served five years of a 15-year prison sentence in Cuba, ostensibly for trying to bring Internet service to the island as a subcontractor for USAID.
President Obama had insisted that no change in US-Cuba relations could take place until he was freed. That has now happened, along with an exchange of imprisoned US and Cuban spies.
All this apparently has been in the works for a year and a half, with Canada hosting secret meetings and no less than Pope Francis acting as a go-between.
The simultaneous speeches by Obama and Cuban president Raul Castro do not mean that you can now head for the nearest US airport and freely board a flight to Havana. The trade embargo remains. And since it was passed by Congress 50 years ago, it will be up to Congress to lift it.
Given Republican determination to stonewall almost anything Obama suggests, I’m none too optimistic about that.
Still, it’s hard to see how normalized relations and the old isolation policy toward Cuba could peacefully coexist, when even conservatives are starting to view that policy as a Cold War relic that needs to be retired.
If that happens, the economic implications for both countries are immense. In terms of tourism alone, the transfusion of American cash into Cuba could transform the island and the lives of its people.
The world’s major hotel chains would descend on Havana and Cuba’s best beaches like locusts in hard hats. The building boom there would be unlike anything North America has seen…maybe ever.
The US cruise industry, desperate to draw new travelers, has long been quietly licking its corporate chops at the prospect of an open Cuba. The chance to see Cuba freely would prompt a lot of Americans to take their first cruise. Every US cruise port serving the Caribbean stands to pick up thousands more passengers, and millions of added tourist dollars.
I’m convinced this was part of Royal Caribbean’s motivation for building the world’s largest cruise ships, and don’t be surprised if Carnival soon matches them.
The airlines also stand to gain by adding Havana’s Jose Martí International Airport to their list of destinations. American, Delta, United, JetBlue, Southwest, AirTran, Allegiant, Spirit…let the jostling for landing rights begin.
The economic boom in Cuba would almost surely be replicated in Florida. The two-way flow of travel between Havana and Miami would be a torrent. The need to service those folks could create an explosion of new jobs and new businesses.
Today’s announcement doesn’t instantly remove all the barriers between US travelers and Cuba. It does mean that the day to seeing the last of those barriers fall just got a lot closer.