07/17/2013 06:00 pm ET Updated Sep 16, 2013

Are We Verging on a Big Change with Cuba?

My initial enthusiasm for candidate Barack Obama was based on his biography, and what he wrote about it. With a father from Kenya and a mother who had lived and worked in Indonesia, including with the internationalist Ford Foundation, he seemed unusually qualified to move beyond the democracy evangelism and national chauvinism of George W. Bush.

Growing up black in but-recently-desegregated-America also seemed to provide built-in skepticism about U.S. triumphalism.

I particularly welcomed his proclaimed readiness to negotiate with long-time adversaries, his use in speeches of the term mutual respect, and his wry approach to the question of U.S. exceptionalism:

"I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."

Perhaps in a state of denial, I am still inclined to believe Obama is uniquely qualified to change history with Cuba.

His frustrating gradualism can either be ascribed to a methodic implementation of strategy or inability to grapple with the fundamental contradictions of U.S. policy.

If it's strategy, the first step established unrestricted travel and remittances for Cuban Americans, transforming sentiment and politics in south Florida and accelerating development of non-state grass roots economy in Cuba embraced by reformers. The second step of people to people, university and religious travel opened institutional links on both sides, albeit with serious bureaucratic obstacles for everyone needing specific licenses from the Office of Foreign Assets Control.

The groundwork is laid, and the next steps are obvious:

1) take Cuba off the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism

2) authorize a general license for all purposeful non-tourist travel

3) end harassment of third country banks that handle Cuba's dollars.

Delay in taking these steps is often ascribed to short term politics. The priority of passing an immigration bill means not alienating key Cuban American allies, Senators Menendez and Rubio. Yet both have strong reasons to stay on board and not be seen as sacrificing the top priority of Latino politics on the alter of their own ethnic special interest, especially when their community already has a uniquely privileged immigration status under the Cuban Adjustment Act. In any case the action has moved to the House which could delay the process indefinitely.

U.S.-Cuba talks about establishing normal postal links were held last month and migration talks are to resume this week. Behind the scenes, are larger topics under discussion?

Paul Haven of the Associated Press raised the possibility:

Cuba and the U.S.. have taken some baby steps toward rapprochement in recent weeks that have people on this island and in Washington wondering if a breakthrough in relations could be just over the horizon.

Long-time reporter Tim Padgett echoed it on WLRN in Miami:

could this finally be the summer of love on the Florida Straits?... Diplomats on both sides report a more cooperative groove.

There will never be a good moment to cut the Gordian knot that obstructs a rational relationship with Cuba, but the next couple of months look about the best we can get.

Whether the president wields the sword turns on his willingness to walk away from a half century old prerequisite that Cuba transform its political and economic system in order to deserve normal relations and a century long presumption of obligation to intervene in a close neighbor's domestic affairs for its own good.

These are the fundamental contradictions of U.S. policy. How can you seriously engage in negotiations when you don't accept the legitimacy of your interlocuter and reserve the right to interfere in its society?

The former still finds echoes in official U.S. statements. The latter is almost an unconscious cultural reflex inherent in the hegemonistic DNA of large powerful countries toward neighbors, e.g.. Russia with Georgia, China with Vietnam, Great Britain with Ireland. (My non-Marxist perspective on imperialism is that state and private economic interests are an expression of, not the cause for, the impulse to dominate.)

The resolution of both the Alan Gross and Cuban Five cases are part of the knot. A variety of solutions are possible once the U.S. acknowledges privately if not publicly that the activity it undertook in Cuba through Alan was not acceptable to a sovereign state and therefore it is reasonable to negotiate his release. The Gross case is politically and legally linked to the 50-year problem, but morally and psychologically tied to the longer standing issue of the right to intervene.

The noisy objection of a diminishing minority of Cuban exiles, like their Nationalist Chinese and South Vietnamese predecessors, has little strategic or political significance at this point. Their isolation is typified by their current effort to change the law on travel in revenge for the widely hailed trip to Havana by Beyonce and Jay-Z. (Action update here.) They will have even less relevance after the president acts. Normalization is a one way road that creates a path for serious Cuban American engagement and investment.

Two important aspects of U.S. normalization with Vietnam and China are indispensable for there to be a similar breakthrough with Cuba:

1) The agendas of exiles for control over relations must be politely ignored.

2) Improvement of internal governance can be an aspiration but never a condition.

John McAuliff
Fund for Reconciliation and Development

An earlier version of this article also addresses the possible impact of Edward Snowden on US-Cuba relations and can be found at here.