The governments of Cuba and the United States want to rebuild diplomatic ties, reestablish trade relations, and reopen lines of communication that have been frozen for over fifty of years. The news is almost unreal, like a dream. But we heard it today, from the leaders of both nations.
In a live speech televised from the White House, Barack Obama described how the two governments worked together over the last 18 months to negotiate the changes announced today. On Cuban state television, in an address that was transcribed and published by Cubadebate, Raul Castro thanked the Vatican and the government of Canada for supporting the delicate process.
In the months ahead, the governments will establish embassies in each other's countries. US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has long advocated for normalizing US-Cuba relations, will review Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terror. Obama indicated that this label, disputed by many experts, is outdated in the current global context.
Of course, Obama cannot unilaterally dismantle all US government policies limiting contact and commerce with Cuba. As both leaders noted, the embargo is codified in legislation that only the US Congress can change. With a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, and a still-powerful constituency of pro-embargo hardliners supporting key Cuban-American legislators like Marco Rubio and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, this will be no small feat.
Political prisoners fly home
The two governments have already taken bold steps in this new direction. Both presidents confirmed that US officials today released three Cuban government agents who had been imprisoned in the US since 2001, and that Cuba had released two US government employees, one of whom had been in prison on the island for over two decades. The other prisoner, US government contractor Alan Gross, was jailed in 2009 for bringing large amounts of tech equipment into the country without a license. Multiple mainstream media sources are also reporting that the Cuban government plans to release 53 prisoners of conscience in the coming weeks.
In contrast to Obama's relatively tempered announcement of the release of Gross and the yet-unnamed intelligence agent, Castro's announcement was impassioned.
As Fidel promised on June 2001, when he said: “They shall return!” Gerardo, Ramon, and Antonio have arrived today to our homeland.
The enormous joy of their families and of all our people, who have relentlessly fought for this goal, is shared by hundreds of solidarity committees and groups, governments, parliaments, organizations, institutions, and personalities, who for the last sixteen years have made tireless efforts demanding their release. We convey our deepest gratitude and commitment to all of them. President Obama’s decision deserves the respect and acknowledgement of our people.
Although their story has received scant coverage in US media, one can barely walk the streets of Havana without seeing signs of the campaign to free “Los Cinco Heroes”, as they are commonly known in Cuban parlance. The five men, all working as counter terrorism agents for the Cuban government, sought to infiltrate anti-Castro militant groups in the US and were arrested in Miami in 1998. They were later convicted of conspiracy to commit espionage and acting as an agents of a foreign government, among other charges. Although they originally faced sentences ranging from life to 15 years behind bars, an in-depth appeals process has since led to reduced sentences for three of the men, and the release of two, one in 2011 and the other in February 2014. Today, they are all free.
Although little is known about the US intelligence agent who was released today, the story of US government contractor Alan Gross has been widely reported since he was arrested in 2009 for bringing technological equipment into the country. Gross made five trips to Cuba on behalf of Development Alternatives International, a subcontractor of USAID, on which he was assigned to set up small WiFi networks in the country. Gross was convicted of traveling to the country without proper permission and of acts that violated the “integrity of the Cuban state”. He was sentenced to fifteen years in prison. He has since been viewed as a bargaining chip in the notoriously tense dynamics between the two governments.
At the time of Gross's conviction, Cuban blogger Iván García quipped,
[t]he real enemy of the Castros is not Gross. The American is nothing more than a good currency of exchange. It’s not bad for negotiating with the Yankees. Or as a political show. Little more.
Thawing isn't easy
Despite the explosion of media response and online commentary about this historical shift, it will take many months for those closest to the situation to interpret and put into political context what has happened today. What will this mean for Cuba's future? How will it affect the Cuban Revolution, which according to government workers and the majority of the Cuban population, is still ongoing?
Castro's speech anticipated these questions and suggested that the transition could in fact help support the system his party has worked so hard to preserve since they came to power in 1959.
The heroic Cuban people, in the wake of serious dangers, aggressions, adversities and sacrifices has proven to be faithful and will continue to be faithful to our ideals of independence and social justice. Strongly united throughout these 56 years of Revolution, we have kept our unswerving loyalty to those who died in defense of our principles since the beginning of our independence wars in 1868.
Today, despite the difficulties, we have embarked on the task of updating our economic model in order to build a prosperous and sustainable Socialism.
Although Obama advocated for leaders on both sides to “leave behind the legacy of both colonialism and communism,” it is not clear how this will play out in practice, given that the Cuban government has shown no intention of letting go of the latter. Obama also made clear that human rights concerns remain a high priority for US policy towards Cuba. “The United States believes that no Cubans should face harassment or arrest or beatings simply because they’re exercising a universal right to have their voices heard,” he said.
Obama also noted US government intentions to continue “supporting civil society” in Cuba, perhaps a tacit reference to US government “democracy promotion” programs such as the one under which Alan Gross was hired.
It may be weeks or even months before Cubans themselves are able to see clearly how these changes will affect their daily lives and the broader trajectory of their country and society. Although I attempted to get quotes and reactions on the news from our Cuban colleagues at Global Voices, most said only that they were speechless, overwhelmed with emotion and surprise. We look forward to highlighting more perspectives from Cubans on both sides of the Florida Straits in the days and weeks to come.