"An almost unthinkable act of political will"

As historic as the move to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba is, it is just the beginning of a lengthy process, says Mark Entwistle.
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December 18, 2014

The moments when history is truly made are rare, and we witnessed such a moment on Wednesday. Taking the world by surprise, U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro have committed their countries to begin the process of finding a new and more normal relationship after 55 years of a unique hostility.

When I arrived in Havana as Canada’s ambassador in the summer of 1993, I thought that perhaps the breakthrough moment would come during my tenure. I soon discovered that most of my predecessors had thought the same thing, believing that such a stalemate could just not continue forever. After I left that diplomatic post, still nothing happened. It was like two ships passing in the night.

It would take an almost unthinkable act of political will to overcome what had become pathological distrust and to transcend the weight of long and painful memories. Those memories are many – the expropriation of American property after the Cuban Revolution, the threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis, an aggressive and unilateral U.S. trade and investment embargo, the 1996 downing of American civilian aircraft that had been systematically violating Cuban national airspace, the Helms-Burton Law, and the ongoing and very recent attempts by the U.S. government to destabilize and cause regime change inside Cuba.

It is hard to exaggerate the political courage both presidents displayed in making their simultaneous announcements to their two peoples. There have been many internal obstacles to such a moment. In the United States, the political blowback from hard-line Cuban-American politicians and many others in the Republican Party will be fierce at first. And Mr. Castro, for his part, has overturned a foundational piece of the Cuban political narrative about the United States as sworn enemy, which would have required the building of a consensus within the leadership around how Cuba’s national interest is best advanced. We have witnessed a demonstration of true political leadership from both leaders, something that so often seems such a rare commodity.

At the same time, the dynamics of the large and increasingly diverse Cuban-American communities in South Florida and New Jersey have shifted significantly in recent years, and Mr. Obama may find much more support than some expect among Cuban-Americans. On the streets of Cuba, an overwhelming majority will welcome these moves, which they had long given up seeing in their lifetimes.

Importantly, this opening was accomplished bilaterally, announced by both presidents, rather than as a unilateral action by the United States, which had long been assumed as the only realistic way to break the logjam. This is a positive sign that both parties are serious. Agreement was reached over multiple meetings, including those held in Canada under Ottawa’s auspices, a fitting diplomatic role for this country.

As historic as this step is, it is the beginning of a lengthy process, and it won’t necessarily be easy. Difficult issues remain. What is commonly known as the U.S. trade and investment embargo against Cuba is actually a complex and jumbled assortment of laws, regulations, directives and presidential orders. Mr. Obama has the authority to make certain changes unilaterally, but other changes can only be accomplished with the co-operation of Congress. Undoing laws is always difficult, and the political fights will be intense, especially as the United States enters its presidential election season.

There is a travel ban. There are almost 6,000 U.S. certified claims seeking compensation for properties confiscated in the early 1960s. The Cuban government has its own counterclaims for compensation against the United States for damages and harm to the Cuban economy and the Cuban people. There has been a historic propensity in the American political class to impose conditionality on talks toward normalization, which the Cuban side has always rejected, demanding that both sides meet as equals without preconditions. The risk of imposed conditionality must be avoided for these talks to progress to their full potential. But these are all manageable issues if the political will demonstrated Wednesday is sustained.

The relationship between the United States and Cuba will never be the same, which means that Canada’s relationships with these distinct neighbours will likewise never be the same. Now is also the time for Canadian government and business to conduct their own reassessments.

A version of this post was originally published by the Globe and Mail.