06/01/2015

Reaching Out to One’s Enemies: The U.S. Gesture towards Cuba and its Implications

Just before the holiday season, the United States and Cuba announced that they were taking several steps to change their severed relations. After almost 50 years of boycotts and embargo, the two countries are ready to open discussions about reviving full diplomatic recognition. While it may seem obvious to most people that the United States’ demonization of Fidel Castro and his regime was counterproductive, the hemisphere’s dominant power is at long last reaching out.


What took so long? Was reaching out that difficult? The answers to both questions are far from obvious. History is full of examples wherein former enemies become allies and former allies become enemies. France and Germany savagely fought each other in two world wars. Today they are joined as the bedrock of the European Union. The Soviet Union was a crucial ally of the United States in World War II. Today the Russian Federation is presented as the outlier to peace and harmony in Europe. President Putin is even demonized as the Hitler of his generation. History contextualizes relations; nothing is written in stone.
If we take that historical perspective, does it change how we see our enemies? If we accept the realization that today’s enemy may be tomorrow’s friend, should we be more careful before demonizing? The United States’ relation to Cuba has a long history going back to colonization. At one point, Cuba was the playground for Hollywood stars and mobsters. The walls of the famous Hotel Nacional de Cuba in Havana are filled with pictures of American personalities, some more respectable than others. Even during the period of broken relations between the two countries, the walls of the hotel were not whitewashed like the Catholic Cathedral of Geneva was during the Reformation. Fond memories were not obliterated.
Reaching out to Cuba, in this sense, was merely reestablishing a long-lost link. It is not as if the two countries had never had relations. The years of sanctions and embargo were only years of changes in those relations, not complete separations. Little Havana in Miami continued to flourish; baseball continued to be the national sport of Cuba.
These reflections lead me to the question of the relations between the United States and the Russian Federation, today’s headlined enemy. There is a long history of U.S. – Russian relations. We were allies during World War II. The end of the Soviet Union continues to be a very misunderstood event. Many Westerners tried to unreasonably profit from the fall of the Berlin Wall. Russia is an important country that cannot be ignored. There can be no major reduction of nuclear arms without Russian cooperation. There can be no stopping the horrendous loss of lives in Syria without Russian cooperation. There can be no peace in Ukraine or Eastern Europe without Russian cooperation. And the list goes on.
If President Obama reached out to President Castro to begin a process of reconciliation, why can’t he reach out to President Putin? Will it take decades before the latest version of the Cold War begins to unfreeze? Is it really necessary for countries (like people) to have enemies? Think of what it meant to the world for Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to reach out to China. If such hardheaded realists like Nixon and Kissinger could reach out to Mao, why can’t Obama get on a plane to Moscow to reach out to Putin?
I was once asked what I would do if I ever became president of the United States. I immediately responded that I would get on a plane to Teheran to speak to the leaders about reestablishing relations between the two countries. I stunned the interviewer who was obviously not prepared for that answer. Maybe that magnanimity is why I am not a politician or president.
President Obama has made a gesture to a former enemy. He should be encouraged to continue in that direction to others. After all, reaching out to so-called enemies is one of the privileges that American presidents have when they are not up for reelection.

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