[By Jiao Haiyang/China.org.cn]
The Summit of the Americas is scheduled to be held in Panama on April 10 and 11. Though not a piece of big news in itself, the summit will see United States President Barack Obama meeting with his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, marking the first substantive encounter between the two countries in more than half a century. An "interaction" between the two is expected, according to recent statements by a U.S. official.
Washington and Havana announced that they would reestablish diplomatic relations at the end of last year. The move has been welcomed by the international community, but substantive steps outside of some lower-level interactions have been rare until now. Thus, a meeting between the heads of the two countries will be a step toward the normalization of ties.
Normalizing the U.S.-Cuba relationship is a smart move as well as a major diplomatic achievement for Obama. Washington and Havana harbored hostility during the Cold War, with the U.S. imposing sanctions on the island country and backing a number of failed assassinations of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro. But Cuba is no longer a threat by the Soviet Union in America's backyard as it was during the Cold War, long-time anti-American leader Fidel Castro has retired, and the priority for Cuba now is to develop its economy.
The thaw in the U.S.-Cuba relationship has also brought sound opportunities for cooperation between Cuba and the European Union. EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini visited Cuba in March and discussed the prospects for economic cooperation between the EU and Cuba. At almost the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also visited Cuba. He praised the thaw in U.S.-Cuban ties and called for an end to the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
Nevertheless, a fully normalized relationship will not come easily. It has been 54 years since the two countries severed diplomatic relations – more than half a century of animosity cannot be easily rooted out in a short time. Animosity in certain sectors of the public is also quite severe, since the two still hold some of each other's intelligence staff behind bars. In addition, some Cubans who fled to the U.S. in the wake of the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s still harbor hatred against the island country's regime. Their offspring are also opposed to normalized ties between the two countries. Though Fidel Castro has now taken a back seat, he claimed this January that he "does not trust United States policies."
On the United States' Capitol Hill, a number of Republicans have criticized Obama for taking executive action to ease some travel and trade restrictions against Cuba. Some Cuban-American Congressmen are opposed to normalization for personal reasons, and the Congress-controlling Republicans, out of partisan politics, are not willing to see such a diplomatic feat achieved by President Obama, a Democrat. All of these stand in the way of the progress of normalization.
But still, Cuba's existence in the backyard of the U.S. requires a normalized relationship with the latter. Cuba's economic development and a number of other complicated issues depend heavily on normal ties with the United States. And though Fidel Castro may have been anti-American for all his life, such is not the case with his brother Raul.
On his part, President Obama needs to improve his diplomatic scorecard. The United States' relationship with Russia is at its worst since the end of the Cold War, and the situation in the Middle East still remains entangled despite a tentative and vulnerable nuclear deal with Iran. Thus, normalizing the U.S. relationship with Cuba will be a highlight of Obama's tenure. Additionally, the normalized relationship will usher in a new diplomatic landscape in Europe and Japan, and Cubans are also eager to see sanctions lifted.
It is thus high time that the United States and Cuba step up efforts to normalize their relations.
The writer is a researcher with the Charhar Institute.
The article was translated by Zhang Lulu. Its original version was published in Chinese.
Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.