THE BLOG
12/19/2014 08:13 am ET Updated Feb 18, 2015

Cuba Policy Changes Mark a Momentous First Step

Joe Raedle via Getty Images

As a historian of Cuba, as a Cuban-American, as an American citizen, I applaud President Obama's change of course on Cuba. Surprisingly, so do my 93 and 88-year old Republican parents in Miami. To say that they love neither Raúl Castro nor Barack Obama is an understatement. Yet, they were swayed by Obama's plain statement of fact: isolation has failed, and after more than 50 years we cannot reasonably expect it to produce a different result. They are weary, and yesterday they felt a stirring, a faint hope that finally something might move.

What exactly will change of course remains to be seen. Already, yesterday, the State Department and the Office of Foreign Assets Control at Treasury sent out emails about impending changes. New regulations at OFAC can be expected in the coming weeks. The Deparment of Commerce will soon issue amendments to its Export Administration Regulations. How Congress will respond is less clear. There is loud (and expected) opposition in some quarters, and questions are sure to arise about the relationship between the new policies and the requirements for diplomatic recognition spelled out in the Helms-Burton law of 1996. At the same time, however, there is bipartisan support for a new approach; indeed, the president's announcement may serve to isolate the far right on Cuba.

Cuba, meanwhile, loses a scapegoat. For decades, the Cuban government mobilized rumors of impending American invasions to distract the public and to deflect blame. I still remember in the early '90s, in the most dire moments of economic crisis following the fall of the Soviet Union, hearing booming detonations as I worked in the archives. The government was blasting tunnels, it said, to be used in case of an American invasion. (Some of the tunnels were eventually used to grow gourmet mushrooms for the international market). A decade later, in 2002, I remember seeing a huge ditch in a very small town on the south central coast of the island. Two old men in the park told me it had been dug just a few months earlier, as a way to prepare for another rumored American invasion. (This was shortly after the Bush administration added Cuba to the "axis of evil"). The award-winning 2011 film Juan of the Dead hit the perfect note when it depicted the Cuban government announcing that a zombie invasion of Havana was the work of dissidents on the payroll of the US government. Such announcements and rumors, we can hope, are now a thing of the past.

Yet, yesterday, as Raul Castro heralded a change in direction, the past may have felt a little too much with us -- and not just because of his age or his uniform. He invoked Fidel early, making him sound almost like a sage, who had already announced Cuba's willingness to take the steps it was now taking, and who had already predicted the return of the Cuban spies. He spoke of unwavering unity in 56 years of revolution, a statement complicated by the fact that over more than five decades so many revolutionaries scattered from Madrid to Miami, Paris to Salvador, London to Rome. There was no mention of civil society, notwithstanding Obama's references to it throughout his own speech -- perhaps one more indication that Raúl's model is and has long been China. Finally, and most importantly, there is at this point little way to predict how the changes announced yesterday will be felt by ordinary Cubans on the island -- young and old, rural and urban, black and white. What, in practice, will all this mean for them, for their access to the Internet, or, for that matter, to economic wellbeing, or social justice, or political rights? It is too soon to tell.

Congratulations on the change are clearly in order. Eighteen months of secret, high-level negotiations produced a momentous first step. But it is only a beginning, and much more will be required of both governments. In the meantime, I will enjoy a new lightness in parents' voices, ignore all the forthcoming articles about Cuban cigars, and keep paying attention to what the change means for my family and friends in Cuba.

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Ada Ferrer is Professor of History and Latin American and Caribbean Studies at New York University. She is the author most recently of Freedom's Mirror: Cuba and Haiti in the Age of Revolution (Cambridge UP, 2014).