HAVANA TIMES — I got wind that Cuba and the United States were exchanging prisoners while interviewing a group of medical doctors who left for Brazil this Wednesday. When I told them the Cuban agents imprisoned in the United States were on their way home, there was applause, cheering and plenty of tears.
Later, we would find out of the exchange between the two presidents, the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, the opening of embassies in the two countries and, most importantly, the willingness to begin talks aimed at arriving at normal bilateral relations.
To say that all Cubans are happy about this would be too absolutist, but the truth is that I haven’t run into one who isn’t celebrating. People believe that the blockade is over and, even though this isn’t the case, it is true that important steps in that direction are being taken.
I immediately headed for the office of Rene Gonzalez, one of the Cuban agents who had been imprisoned in the United States and was recently released. The atmosphere there was festive. For Rene, “this is a first step, the daring step that was needed to break the inertia.”
The Cuban agent acknowledges Obama’s merit, because “these steps run into opposition in US society and you need willpower and firmness to make headway.” Olga, his wife, wears a wide smile on her face. “I’m thinking about their families,” she says to me, as though apologizing.
I also feel happy – 5 people are seeing their families again after serving long prison sentences. In some way, all journalists working in Cuba have had contact with the relatives of the Cuban agents and those of US contractor Alan Gross.
To put an end to this situation with a humanitarian gesture that benefits everyone was a wise step by both governments. It is also a just step, as Washington and Havana were the ones that gave these people the clandestine missions for which they were ultimately detained.
A Good Start
A reciprocal humanitarian gesture will always be a good start if one is seeking a more constructive relationship. This is only a first step, but it was preceded by talks between the two presidents and accompanied by the re-establishment of diplomatic relations.
Obama’s pragmatism seems to have triumphed and his reasoning appears impeccable: “We can’t continue to do the same thing and expect different results.” The fact of the matter is that, with the “lever” of the economic embargo, 11 US presidents had been unable to make Havana budge.
For the first time in fifty years, the United States is seeking a different relationship with Cuba – but these are merely the first steps. I want to believe that we are seeing a new beginning and not a new strategy to achieve the old objective of destabilizing the Cuban government.
Will the covert operations that began in 1959 with the CIA’s Operation Mongoose and continue today under the USAID, which creates clandestine Internet networks, finances groups of young dissidents and persuades Cuban musicians to criticize the government in their songs, come to an end?
They may well come to an end, considering that the current director of USAID, Rajiv Sha, announced that he would be stepping down, saying that “with mixed feelings, I informed President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry that I am stepping down in mid-February of 2015.”
Will Cuba cease sending agents to infiltrate the United States? Will Cuba’s discourse vis-à-vis Washington become more moderate? Will the “city under siege” mentality, which leads to an attitude of constant suspicion, change? Is Havana willing to make concessions?
Raul Castro has been inviting Washington to sit down and negotiate the very year he entered office. He has referred to Obama respectfully and, during his mandate, the constant rallying against the United States’ diplomatic headquarters in Cuba ceased.
A Mined Field
After so many decades of conflict, the most difficult thing of all will be to achieve a minimum of mutual trust, indispensable if there is any interest in moving towards good neighborly relations. The train has just left the station and any misstep, misinterpretation or confusing declaration could derail it.
What’s more, there will be enemies lying in wait at every step of the way, ready to attack them to keep them from reaching their destination. To advance down this road successfully, we need capable, moderate, pragmatic and astute politicians willing to put the past behind them definitively.
But they won’t be alone. To get to here, they had the help of the Canadian government and Pope Francis. They will also have the support of the international community, which welcomes that the last flame of the Cold War be put out.