Today, the Cold War's end is finally in sight. Begun almost immediately after World War II, the Cold War was the defining issue in American foreign policy right up to 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union. One final legacy remained for another quarter-century after the Berlin Wall came down, though: America's Cuba policy. This final leftover from the Cold War will now be brought to an end, decades after it had been proven not to work. President Barack Obama just spoke on the telephone with the leader of Cuba to finalize the two countries' new relations -- an event that hadn't happened in over half a century. The Cold War is now almost completely a matter of interest only to historians, to put things into context.
America's Cuban policy was always a personal one, driven by our hatred of Fidel Castro. The Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis cemented our policy into one of irrational behavior -- doing the same thing for 50 years, while continually expecting a different result. Harshness towards Cuba during this time was an absolute requirement for American presidents, lest they be painted "soft on communism." We slapped an economic embargo on the island that the rest of the world largely ignored (Cuban cigars and beach vacations have always been available in Europe), in order to crush the Cuban economy and force the Cuban people to overthrow Castro. The C.I.A. plotted (this is historical fact) with the Mafia to smuggle James Bond-like weapons (such as exploding cigars) into Cuba to get rid of him. None of it worked. Fidel Castro held onto control during the presidencies of Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush's son -- a total of ten presidents Castro lasted through. His continued leadership of Cuba showed how ineffectual our embargo and diplomatic shunning of Cuba has been, throughout the past five decades.
Castro finally stepped down in 2008, and handed over the reins of power to his brother, Raúl. This has paved the way towards much better relations between Cuba and America, since a lot of why the embargo was continued for so long stemmed from our sheer hatred for Fidel.
Supporters of the Cuban embargo would disagree, I realize. They'd trot out all the conventional reasons why we can't possibly have any interaction with Cuba: they are a communist nation, their government is totalitarian, there is no political freedom, all the Cuban political prisoners who have been jailed for questioning their government, Cuba's human rights record and all the rest. These are all just hangovers from the Cold War mentality, however, since the same could be said of any number of other nations that America interacts with on the world stage -- all of which Americans are free to visit and see for themselves (unlike Cuba).
Take Vietnam, for instance. We fought a war -- and lost it -- against their communists, and now Vietnam is an important trading partner with the U.S. Or take communist China. Not only do they enjoy permanent "most favored nation" trade with the U.S., our government is actually heavily in debt to their communist government. It's ironic in the extreme that the world's biggest democracy is in hock to the biggest communist country, in fact. Totalitarian governments? Like, say, Saudi Arabia -- where women can't drive? That's just the most obvious example, there are plenty of others to choose from who all enjoy normal diplomatic relations with America, and where trade flows both ways. We now even are friends with Myanmar, and have to properly use this name instead of "Burma." The list of repressive governments who haven't warranted the same treatment we've doled out to Cuba is indeed a long one. The only difference is they are not ruled by Fidel Castro, really. That, and our shared history.
Barack Obama certainly added to his legacy today. Just as Nixon went to China, Obama will now go down in history as the president who opened up Cuba. How this will all play politically remains to be seen. Outside of the Miami area, Obama's on pretty safe ground. Most Americans favor opening up Cuba, and have for a long time. The policy we've been following is not only seen as outdated, but irrelevant to most people (at least outside the realm of cigar and rum aficionados).
Both support for Obama's new policy and opposition to it are going to be somewhat bipartisan. One prominent Cuban-American Democrat, Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey, has already strongly denounced Obama's move. But what will be interesting to see is the reaction from farm-state Republicans. In the past few years, there has been a quiet lobbying effort by farmers to be allowed to sell produce to Cuba. It's a big market right on the doorstep of the United States, and plenty of people think there's good money to be made by opening up trade with the island. The farther you get from Miami, the more reasonable Republicans might be on the issue, to put this another way.
America's Cuba policy has -- for decades -- been nothing more, really, than a pawn in the grand game of electoral politics. Florida is perhaps the most important swing state in the Electoral College, for two reasons. One is its size -- a whopping 29 electoral votes. The other is how consistent the state is in picking winners. Since the Cuban Missile Crisis, Florida has voted for the winner of the presidential contest in every election except Clinton's first (1992). That's 12 out of 13 elections -- a pretty impressive record.
Any presidential nominee during that period had to pander to Miami Cubans, by trying to outdo each other in support of the Cuban embargo -- much the same way nominees talk up their support for ethanol in Iowa. This era is now over. Even before Obama announced his new change today, support within the Cuban community in Miami for the embargo had severely slipped. It's a generational thing -- younger Cuban-Americans don't have the same fervor their parents and grandparents do against the Cuban government, to put it mildly.
Cuba will still be an issue in presidential politics in 2016, though. The Democratic nominee will finally be freed to speak of a rational and modern foreign policy towards Cuba, while the Republicans will be trying to outdo each other in their denunciations of Obama's actions. Two prominent Cuban-American Republicans are already thinking about running for president, meaning other Republicans are going to have to get really extreme to try to outflank either Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz on the issue.
Whatever the political fallout, President Obama made some history today. He had always indicated his willingness to relax our Cuba policy, starting from his first days in office. Barely three months into his term, he made it easier for Cuban-Americans to visit the relatives they left behind in Cuba and send them money. This was a reversal of a very hard line George W. Bush had drawn, and it represented the first indication of a major shift in our policy towards Cuba. Today Obama made the biggest step towards shifting our Cuba policy since John F. Kennedy was in the Oval Office. It is nothing short of the beginning of the end of the last vestige of the Cold War -- a policy that should probably have been jettisoned at least two decades ago. While Congress will have the final word on lifting the embargo -- which indeed may not happen for years to come -- President Obama will go down in history as the president who finally admitted that our Cold War policy towards Cuba has been nothing short of a dismal failure.
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