Obama's historic opening to Cuba: A hint of things to come with Iran?

By restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba, President Obama has acted in accord with one of his most deeply-held principles: America must engage its enemies.

Doug Mills/Reuters
President Obama delivers an address from the White House in Washington about a shift in policy toward Cuba.

President Obama’s decision to reestablish full diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States for the first time since 1961 reflects the president’s conviction – laid out in his first inaugural address – that engagement with foreign adversaries is better than isolation.

Mr. Obama’s historic decision means that two longtime antagonists – who have what the president himself described Wednesday as a “unique history” – will establish embassies in each other’s capital and exchange ambassadors. While lifting the half-century-old US embargo on the Communist island would take an act of Congress, Mr. Obama will go as far as legally permissible to ease travel and trade restrictions between the two countries and get relations to “normal.”

“It’s time for a new approach” with Cuba, Obama said in an Oval Office televised statement. “These 50 years have shown that isolation does not work.”

The president’s action is only the latest “item on Obama’s bucket list,” said Mike Gonzalez, senior fellow in international affairs at Washington’s Heritage Foundation. A Cuban-American opposed to Obama’s actions, Mr. Gonzalez warned Wednesday that more executive actions, like recent steps on immigration, could be coming from the White House.

Indeed, with Obama having essentially checked off Cuba on his diplomatic to-do list, might Iran be next? 

Perhaps, according to descriptions from senior administration officials of the 18 months of secret diplomatic effort with Cuban officials that culminated in Wednesday’s dramatic policy shift. They suggest that Obama could take a similar historic step with Iran before leaving office – if diplomats can reach an accord on Iran’s nuclear program next year.

One senior administration official, who briefed reporters Wednesday on the Cuban diplomacy, made a specific comparison to a secret administration diplomatic effort with Iranian officials in 2013. That mission led to a “joint plan of action” on Iran’s nuclear program and an unprecedented degree of diplomatic contact between the US and Iran.

Obama specifically referred to Iran in his 2009 “engagement with adversaries” inaugural address.

Noting that Obama has favored engagement whenever possible, the official said, “Openness is a better policy than isolation in advancing the things we care about in Cuba.”

Foreign policy conservatives blasted the decision, saying the move would do nothing for human rights and democracy in Cuba and would only strengthen the Castro regime’s hold on power.

Obama held a 45-minute telephone conversation with Cuban President Raúl Castro on Tuesday, a degree of high-level communication not seen between the two countries since the Cuban revolution.    

Wednesday’s action, which administration officials had been hinting at for months, was made possible by Cuba’s agreement to release Alan Gross, the US contractor who had been jailed in Cuba for five years on what amounted to espionage charges.

Cuba agreed to release Mr. Gross on “humanitarian grounds,” a move that allowed both governments to stand their ground on Gross’s five years in prison. The US insists he did nothing unlawful in helping to set up Internet access for the island’s Jewish community, while the Cuban government maintains he was justly convicted of spying and undermining the government.

The two governments also concluded a “swap” of three Cuban intelligence agents in prison in the US for 15 years for a man the US identified only as an “intelligence asset” who had been in prison in Cuba for more than 20 years.

In Havana, church bells rang as President Castro announced the turning of a page with the US on state television.

Speaking upon his return to the US, Gross called Obama’s actions “a game-changer I fully support.” He added that it was “particularly cool” to be sitting beside Secretary of State John Kerry as the president laid out the steps he was directing Mr. Kerry to take, including a review to remove Cuba from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Impact from Obama’s action is expected to be felt from US farmlands to Cuba’s nascent private sector. US farmers will be able to sell more food more easily to Cuba, while measures will be forthcoming that allow Cuban private restaurants, hair salons, and other small businesses, to purchase supplies “Made in USA.”

Cuban Americans will be allowed to remit more US dollars to family in Cuba. And while the ban on general US tourism to Cuba will remain, since it is part of the embargo, the administration plans to continue a broadening of permissible categories of US travelers to Cuba that it began in 2011.

In his statement, Obama said he “looks forward to engaging Congress” in a “serious deliberation about lifting the embargo,” but reaction from Capitol Hill Wednesday suggested such a move is far off.

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Miami native, called Obama’s action “disgraceful” and said it was based on an “illusion” that trade and more US dollars in Cuba “will somehow translate to pluralism and freedom.”

Some congressional opponents of Obama’s opening to Cuba predicted the president will be stymied wherever possible – for example by congressional holds on any ambassadorial nomination to Havana and on any funding to advance the policy.

What that promises is more controversy ahead over Cuba. Obama’s action Wednesday opens a new chapter on a tortured half-century relationship. But it also renews the decades-old debate over how best to bring about change in a poor but proud communist island ninety miles off the Florida coast.

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