Cuba: Is It Time to Turn Enemies Into Frenemies?

After that unexpected Obama-Castro handshake last year, there are more signs of a thawing in relations.

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President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raúl Castro during the official memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium Dec. 10, 2013, in Johannesburg.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

You can’t ignore a rogue Caribbean communist island a jump from the Florida coast, especially when it’s run by guys named Castro. But President Obama didn’t want his spot blown when he sent a low-key missive to Cuban President Raúl Castro just a couple of weeks ago.

There was very little noise made when he penned it, and his messenger, Uruguayan President José Mujica, kept it quiet when delivering it. No breaking-news alerts when it happened, no riled statements from Republican lawmakers construing it as Obama overreach and no conservative talk show hosts throwing rhetorical firebombs at the White House. It was more like kids passing notes in the back of the classroom.

Reuters caught wind of it, focusing heavily on Obama’s plea to free jailed U.S. Agency for International Development contractor Alan Gross. But the U.S.-Cuba connect didn’t just stop with the letter. A jigsaw puzzle of media reports revealed the presence of a Cuban delegation attending inaugural ceremonies for Panamanian President-elect Juan Carlos Varela, along with an American group that included Secretary of State John Kerry and Gov. Deval Patrick (D-Mass.).

Cuba has been back in the lights: from Obama’s much-hyped handshake with Raúl Castro at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa to entertainment power couple Jay-Yonce’s questionably legal visit to Cuba last year. Edges of the U.S.-Cuba Cold War are gradually thawing—but whether it’s happening as rapidly as melting polar ice caps remains to be seen.

“The letter is an attempt to have a discussion with the Cubans,” Carl Meacham, a leading Latin America expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Root. “But it’s going to take a lot more than the letter. There was a thaw up until Gross was arrested.

“I don’t see [a lifted embargo] in the short term,”  Meacham added. “But a lot of the current discussions are positive.”

Signs that it’s creeping into the public consciousness: NPR, out of the blue, ran a multiday Morning Edition special on “A Changing Cuba” within a two-week spit of Obama’s letter. U.S. News & World Report estimates that 100,000 Americans have traveled to Cuba since Obama loosened travel rules and direct flights in 2009.

Everybody wants to go to Cuba now. Sadly, although my late mother—quietly battling cancer—did get to see that first black president, she passed away before carrying out meticulous plans for a Cuba trip as part of a Yoruba-inspired spiritual tour. However, the reality of a lifted embargo—fraught with geopolitical intrigue and risks—could become a reality for her kids and grandkids.

The implications of a policy change are rather profound for African Americans and the massive Diaspora spread throughout the West Indies and Latin America. The black presence in Cuba is culturally and politically significant, with Fidel Castro viewed by many black Pan-Africanists in the U.S. as a revolutionary brother. So deep was that bond that convicted Black Panther Assata Shakur, the first woman ever placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list, found refuge in Cuba after escaping from jail for the killing of a New Jersey state trooper.

More than 10 percent of the island’s 12 million residents are Afro-Cuban, or black, which doesn’t include the nearly 30 percent considered mulatto, or biracial. A 2008 study of Cuban genes commissioned by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (which is odd) found that African lineage accounted for 45 percent of the population’s DNA.    

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