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Fragrance of Cuban cigars and rum will embellish ties

March 25, 2016 14:08 IST

'I recall an encounter I had with a US Congressman of Cuban origin, who was hostile to India because of our continuing goodwill for Cuba.'
'He asked me why India was still friendly with Cuba and I gave him an honest answer that it was rooted in historical and friendly ties.'
'He took it as an affront and spread the word that an Indian diplomat had defended Fidel Castro in his chamber!'
Ambassador T P Sreenivasan on President Obama's historic visit to Havana.

US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro in Havana. Photograph: Carlos Barria/ ReutersFidel Castro was credited with a prediction 43 years ago that 'The US will come and talk with us when it has a black President and the world has a Latin American Pope.' (K P Nayar in The Telegraph).

This might well have been apocryphal, but even if it was true, the conditions were fulfilled quite a while ago. Obama became the first black President more than seven years ago and the Latin American Pope is already contemplating resignation.

The normalisation of relations between the US and Cuba was, therefore, long overdue. After the end of the Cold War, there was no real reason for the two countries to remain alienated. If history could be reversed in relations with China and Iran, there was no reason for the inordinate delay in the case of Cuba. By visiting Cuba recently, Barack Obama was merely accepting the dictates of history and removing an anachronism.

By delaying the normalisation of relations with Cuba, which is not yet complete, the US has only hurt itself. Apart from the denial of Cuban cigars and Havana Rum to aficionados, the situation led to the growth of disaffection against the US in several Latin American countries as Cuba continued to be the rallying point for anti-American sentiments without any political or economic benefits for the US or its allies. Europe and Canada had gone ahead and removed the embargo.

The UN General Assembly passed resolutions year after year, urging the US to remove this vestige of the Cold War. With Obama, the harbinger of change, at the helm of affairs, the logic was for change, not the status quo.

Pope Francis' role in speeding up the process of normalisation was a decisive factor in a situation, which was ripe for change. His intervention resonated not only with the public in the United States, but also Cuban exiles in the US who had opposed such moves in the past.

In fact, the Cuban exiles in the US, who are estimated to exceed one million, have been the main drivers of the US policy towards Cuba since 1959. They came in different waves, some as political asylum seekers soon after the Cuban revolution and others seeking economic benefits.

Many made use of the Cuban willingness to let them go and the American welcome accorded to them as part of the destabilisation strategy against Cuba. Several people, who left in desperate situations, perished on the high seas.

The emotional baggage of the Cuban exiles was a factor that successive American administrations had to contend with in the formulation of the Cuba policy. Some of them, who rose in the political hierarchy of the US, actively campaigned against any softening towards Castro.

Several political organisations sprang up in the areas, where Cuban exiles were concentrated. Apart from protecting the interests of the migrants, these organizations were concerned that any normalisation with Cuba would result in the loss of the refugee status that the new arrivals enjoyed in the US. The instinct of self-preservation, rather than ideology dictated their attitudes.

I recall an encounter I had with a US Congressman of Cuban origin, who was hostile to India because of our continuing goodwill for Cuba. He asked me why India was still friendly with Cuba and I gave him an honest answer that it was rooted in historical and friendly ties in the past.

He took it as an affront and spread the word on the Hill that an Indian diplomat had defended Fidel Castro in his chamber! He had expected that I would please him by making derogatory remarks about Castro. Such was the mentality of even Cuban-American legislators.

It should go to Obama's credit that he was able to overcome the fears about the reaction of the Cuban community in an election year by making the trip. He went beyond the requirements of the occasion to characterise it as historic, when he said, 'I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War. I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban People.'

He devoted a considerable part of his speech to the travails of the Cuban exiles, who went to the US in search of freedom and democracy. He tried to allay their fears about the US compromising with dictatorship, even when conceding that every people should choose their path themselves. He has to contend with the sentiments of the Cuban exiles in his effort to lift the embargo, which is a prerogative of the United States Congress.

It is not unusual for US Presidents, particularly Obama, to be frank about what they consider undesirable in their host countries. Obama's last speech in Delhi was a prime example of this practice. He gained nothing in terms of bilateral relations by speaking his mind, but it was a requirement that something should be said about the prejudices in India.

In Cuba, it was even more important to set the record straight on human rights and authoritarianism, even as he praised Cuba's achievements in education and health. President Castro paid back in the same coin by speaking of the embargo and Guantanamo. While these point to the difficulties ahead, the leaders were aware that the change was clearly irreversible.

Nitpicking by the press is inevitable on such occasions as they microscopically search for clues for the trouble ahead. One such instance was the body language of the two Presidents.

Did Castro stop Obama from a patronising pat on his back by an awkward lifting of Obama's limp hand in a wrestler-like gesture?

Why did Fidel Castro administer a snub by denying Obama a photo opportunity?

The first was obviously not choreographed and showed the remaining nervousness on the part of both, while the latter was a clear signal that Fidel Castro was not yet ready to forgive and forget. He may have been sick, but he could easily have held Obama's hand in a gesture of reconciliation.

Obama publicly expressed his willingness to call on the old man, but there was no explanation from the Cubans as to what had happened. There must have been discussions on the issue before and during the visit and it is significant that the Americans did not consider it a litmus test of Cuban sincerity.

Perhaps, Fidel Castro considered the visit as unfinished business as yet, because the fate of the embargo was not known. It is also possible that Obama was not willing to promise to remain silent about the internal situation in Cuba as a price for a photo opportunity with the legend.

The situation was ripe for a US-Cuba rapprochement long before it happened. The winds of globalisation had not left Cuba unaffected. The Cubans have always been more comfortable with the Americans than with the Russians at a personal level. Miami, and not Moscow, has been their promised land.

After the Cold War, the two had learnt to deal with each other without intermediaries. The lifestyle and language of Cuban diplomats were more in tune with American aristocracy rather than with their comrades in Russia. Many points of crisis were resolved between them.

The Americans were quite comfortable with the beaches and bars of Havana. This natural affinity, rather than the terms of settlement, will determine the future of the relations between the US and Cuba.

The fragrance of Cuban cigars and rum will embellish their ties.

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

T P Sreenivasan