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.

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

For years the Pan-Africanist scene stateside has accused the U.S. of a racial double standard when it comes to Cuba. “If Cuba had been mostly white, there might not have ever been an embargo in the first place,” charges Rom Wills, host of Rise and Transform on independent Harambe Radio. “It’s a similar situation in Haiti—look at all the interference that’s had from the beginning. Do you really want that type of influence in your backyard without some control?”

Some might counter “yes”: it was Fidel Castro who came within an inch of triggering nuclear apocalypse during the infamous 13-day Cuban missile crisis in October 1962.

Yet that doesn’t help explain the reason behind an embargo that officially started two years prior, in 1960.  

Meacham quickly pointed to the political calendar when pondering Obama’s Cuba calculus, arguing that Obama wants to lift the embargo, but it’s hard to when he’s virtually lame-ducked by Congress and 2016 elections. Realistically, lifting it might not happen until the second term of the next American president—a moment when a future lame-ducker won’t have to worry about re-election.    

Cuba itself, while openly playing it coy, probably wants a game change in relations as badly as the U.S. does. “Cuba certainly has its reasons for entertaining such an offer,” notes intelligence firm Stratfor in a recent analysis. “The country’s main benefactor, Venezuela, may no longer be in a position to support the Cuban economy. Since Cuba depends heavily on Venezuelan oil exports, it may soon have to look elsewhere for its energy needs.”

As global alliances shift quickly, prompted in large part by players like Russian President Vladimir Putin as they reach out to old U.S. enemies, Obama must turn geopolitical enemies into regional friends. Clearly it’s less of a risk for an American president to radically reshape U.S.-Cuba policy now than it was 10 or 20 years ago. The clout-heavy Cuban-American lobby, with its epicenter in voter-rich battleground Florida, is still a force during presidential primaries and tight Electoral College counts, but its anti-Castro soul is aging out.

A June Florida International University poll confirmed this when it revealed that 52 percent of Cuban Americans oppose the U.S. embargo. And while 68 percent want open diplomatic relations between the two nations, 69 percent want unfettered direct travel to what is slowly regaining prominence as a desired Caribbean resort destination. The memory of mass exile from communist Cuba is gradually being replaced by a younger millennial mindset in places like southern Florida—home to seven out of 10 of the 2 million Cubans in the U.S.—where the population hungers for a cultural tie-in to the island nation.

Charles D. Ellison is a veteran political strategist and regular contributor to The Root. He is also Washington correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune and chief political correspondent for Uptown magazine. Follow him on Twitter.