That there would be a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations seemed inevitable. After all, the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the Castro brothers are getting on in years.
And yet, there is a sense that a new era is beginning with the joint Barack Obama–Raúl Castro announcement, and an air of optimism and hope in the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The fact that Pope Francis, Obama, Castro, and the government of Canada all converged to bring an end to a relic of the Cold War is a major part of the story. My country, Canada, never went along with the U.S. embargo, imposed in 1960. This made Canada a facilitator, and a credible factor in bringing two mutually suspicious parties together. Meetings in Toronto and Ottawa occurred throughout 2013 and 2014 with Canadian assistance.
The first pope from the Americas, who seized the opportunity to make a difference, to build bridges, and to improve the lot of the Cuban people by using his good offices, may have been the closer on the deal. If Obama is the commander-in-chief, Pope Francis is the inspirer-in-chief.
Obama deserves much credit for his courage and his vision. Clearly, this president knows his history. Just as Nixon went to China and Truman set up the Marshall Plan for Europe in the post-World War II era, Obama knew that he had to do something different with a nation just 90 miles off the U.S. shore. In the realm of values and legacy, setting up diplomatic relations with Cuba is far better than sending prisoners to Guantánamo.
The Cuban people may, at the end of the day, be the big winners. Granted, the release of Alan Gross, the unjustly imprisoned U.S. contractor, was reason enough to rejoice on the eve of the holiday season. However, the gradual easing of commercial, economic and social sanctions can only send the right signals to Cuba and the rest of Latin America—that change is on the way.
We know the Castro brothers have not become converts to Western democracy and values. This breakthrough is but a beginning. Technology, greater U.S. access to Cuba and Cuba’s proximity to the U.S. will continue, way beyond the duration of the Castro regime. In the long run, this will do more to change Cuba.
I know that the agreement has some detractors. Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic Senator Robert Menéndez, both Cuban-Americans, reacted predictably and understandably. Their families suffered great loss and unspeakable pain. The alternative, however, was a continuation of a failed policy and more lost generations. Canada, Pope Francis and President Obama believed that something else was possible. And history will judge accordingly.
It was a rare moment in history, and it was seized. Former Canadian Ambassador to Cuba Mark Entwistle said that the normalization of relations with Cuba is a process, not a destination. He is right— which is why it was diplomacy at its best.