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.
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.