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Did Cuban cigars thaw US-Cuba relations?

April 20, 2015 08:33 IST

A lady enjoys a cigar in Cuba

'The irresistible Cuban cigars, which acquire their unique flavour as they are rolled on the thighs of Cuban women have always been the ultimate temptation for cigar connoisseurs in the US,' says Ambassador T P Sreenivasan.

President John Kennedy called in his press secretary Pierre Salinger to the Oval Office on the evening of February 6, 1961 and asked him to place an urgent order for 1,200 Corona Cuban Cigars to be delivered to him the next morning.

Salinger could not understand the sense of emergency in the President's voice, but he rushed to work and produced the cigars at the appointed hour.

The President breathed in the fragrance of the cigars and reached for the Cuba file on his table and signed the order of a comprehensive trade embargo against Cuba, with the satisfaction that he had a good stock of Cuban cigars in the White House.

It turned out that the President had even contemplated exempting cigars from the embargo, but could not do so because the cigar manufacturers in Florida would have none of it.

The irresistible Cuban cigars, which acquire their unique flavour as they are rolled on the thighs of Cuban women, have always been the ultimate temptation for cigar connoisseurs in the US.

Apart from all the complicated geopolitical factors that determined the dramatic change in the Cuba policy announced by President Barack Obama after an unprecedented meeting with Raul Castro, the Cuban cigars and rum may have played a role in it.

Even during the long embargo, Cuban cigars and rum found their way to the US by different routes. The original Cuban cigars, smuggled by the Cuban immigrants were available at extremely high prices and even fake Cuban cigars had a market.

Only recently have cigars become available online, which are shipped without markings to American smokers. I recall bringing gifts of Cuban cigars from my innumerable trips to Cuba from New York when Cuba was the chair of the Nonaligned Movement.

One of the first orders issued by the US customs on relaxation of the embargo was to authorise tourists to Cuba to bring back alcohol or tobacco worth a hundred US dollars each.

Cuban cigars and rum have become symbols of the many sacrifices that the Americans made to keep Cuba isolated politically and economically for more than half a century.

The embargo made sense as long as Cuba was an outpost of the Soviet Union and hence posed a threat to the US. One has only to recall the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 to fathom the gravity of the situation.

The story goes that both Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev had their fingers on the nuclear button till both withdrew simultaneously, without realising that the other had already chickened out.

But once the Soviet Union collapsed and the Cold War ended, there was really no justification for the embargo to continue. By no stretch of imagination was Cuba a threat to the United States.

US allies lost no time in normalising relations, once the Cold War ended. By isolating Cuba, the US was merely isolating itself in its own backyard. In the process, the US lost the trade and tourism opportunities with Cuba and also made Fidel Castro a hero, who single-handedly challenged the mighty United States.

Moreover, Latin American countries, which were once natural allies of the United States, developed their own political and economic ideologies close to Cuban thinking.

By keeping Cuba out of the Organisation of American States, the US gave rise to alternative political and economic groupings.

The prime reason for the continued animosity between Cuba and the United States after the Cold War was the hatred of Cuban migrants in the United States towards Castro and the Cuban system.

Most of the laws, enacted recently were at the instance of US Congressmen of Cuban origin. I have recorded in my book, Encounters, how 'I learnt the hard way that I should keep my admiration for Fidel Castro to myself during conversations with US Congressmen with Spanish names.'

A US Congressman of Cuban origin asked me in 1999 why India maintained good relations with Cuba. Thinking that it was an honest question, I gave an honest answer, without hiding my admiration for Castro and Cuba.

I traced a bit of the history of the Nonaligned Movement and the roles played by Cuba and India in it. Even though the world had changed, we worked together on several issues, as two developing countries. Ideology had nothing to do with it, I said. I also spoke of the cordial relations Castro had with our leaders.

The reaction of the Congressman was openly hostile, as he did not want to hear a good word about Castro. Such was the paranoia that Cuban immigrants had about Cuba.

Cuban immigrants drove the US policy of democracy promotion programmes in Cuba, which was not different from the moves for regime change elsewhere and they will continue to press for political freedom and human rights even while the normalisation takes place.

The Cuban government has been firm in upholding their principles such as no iota of concession to imperialism and no privatisation of the main means of production, but it has been flexible on tactics.

Cuba made no secret of its desire to normalise relations with the US. It maintained fairly close contacts with the US through their Interests Section in the Swiss embassy in Washington, DC.

In 2000, the celebrated case of a young boy, Elian Gonzales, who got involved between his father in Havana and his relatives in Miami, was resolved to the satisfaction of the Cuban government because of effective Cuban diplomacy, in spite of the media pressure in play.

The communications channel remained open between the two countries and some Cuban diplomats like Raul Roa-Kouri were more at home in the US than in Cuba.

In fact, the then US President, Bill Clinton, had a few words with Fidel Castro in 2000 at the UN, which was characterised by then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as a major symbolic achievement, but dismissed as of no consequence by the US.

Clinton had eased some travel restrictions in 1999 in the hope of influencing the Cuban mind.

The latest events, starting with a 'prisoner swap agreement' on December 17, 2014 and culminating in a meeting between Barack Obama and Raul Castro on April 11, 2015 will lead to a win-win situation for the US and Cuba.

Cuba considers it a foreign policy triumph and a majority of the people in the US favour better relations with Cuba. Neither side has sacrificed its fundamental positions, but interests are likely to converge as the two countries identify common interests.

US culture already has a fascination for sections of the youth, intellectuals and artists in Cuba and this may lead to better ties. The Americans can happily yield to the ultimate temptation of enjoying Cuban cigars without any sense of guilt.

T P Sreenivasan, (IFS 1967), is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA Executive Vice-Chairman, Kerala State Higher Education Council, Director General, Kerala International Centre.

Image: A street entertainer waits for tourists in Havana. Photograph: Desmond Boylan/Reuters

T P Sreenivasan