Skip to content
Not since Richard Nixon went to China has an intractable foreign policy issue been so ripe for resolution as U.S. relations with Cuba are today.
As with China, bilateral hostility has persisted long after the causes of the initial break have ceased to hold sway, held in place by seemingly implacable domestic opposition to normalizing relations and the policy inertia of official Washington. When Nixon broke the stalemate by announcing his impending trip in 1972, the pro-Taiwan "China lobby" proved to be a paper tiger, and the foreign policy establishment heaved a great sigh of relief that such a manifestly irrational, ineffective and anachronistic policy had finally been put to rest.
U.S. policy toward Cuba today, like policy toward China in 1972, is overdue for change. Relations broke down 50 years ago because Washington was unwilling to countenance a Latin American client state escaping the orbit of U.S. hegemony, and because Fidel Castro was determined to do just that. The Soviet Union's willingness to provide Cuba an essential safety net brought Cold War confrontation to the Western Hemisphere, escalating the U.S.-Cuba skirmish to potential Armageddon.
These original insults to U.S. interests have long since faded. The end of the Cold War ended Havana's pretensions to world power and its threat to U.S. strategic interests. Cuban troops came home from Africa and no longer train aspiring Latin American guerrillas. Castro, who relished tweaking the noses of U.S. presidents and built both his domestic support and international prestige on defying them, has, since his illness, retired to the role of pundit. His more pragmatic younger brother, Raul, abstains from the anti-American rhetoric that made Fidel famous, and on several occasions has offered dialogue.
Long before Nixon went to China, the rest of the world community had acknowledged that China was governed from Beijing, not Taiwan. U.S. allies in Latin America and Europe, which followed Washington's lead half a century ago by breaking ties with Cuba, today have normal economic and diplomatic relations with the island. Last October, the United Nations General Assembly voted for the 17th time in as many years to condemn the U.S. embargo by a vote of 185 to 3. In December, 33 Latin American and Caribbean nations in the Rio Group granted Cuba full membership and called for an end to the U.S. embargo. A policy adopted half a century ago to isolate Cuba today isolates only the U.S.
Several of Barack Obama's predecessors in the White House considered normalizing relations, but something always went awry. John F. Kennedy hoped to win Cuba back from the Soviet camp by exploiting Castro's anger at Moscow for negotiating an end to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis without consulting him. Kennedy's diplomacy began through private envoys and was on the verge of graduating to talks between U.S. and Cuban officials at the United Nations when Kennedy was killed.
During Gerald Ford's administration, Henry Kissinger set his sights on detente with Havana. The efficacy of isolating Cuba had already begun to break down as allies in Latin America and Europe, one by one, restored normal ties with the island. Using journalist Frank Mankiewicz as a courier, Kissinger sent Castro a letter proposing talks to normalize relations, and Castro agreed. Over the next 18 months, U.S. and Cuban diplomats met secretly half a dozen times, in venues as varied as the grungy cafeteria at the LaGuardia airport terminal and the swanky Pierre Hotel in New York. Before the dialogue could gain traction, however, it was interrupted by Cuba's decision to send 30,000 combat troops to halt South Africa's intervention in Angola.
Jimmy Carter, like President-elect Obama, believed in the value of engaging adversaries. Within weeks of assuming office, Carter ordered the government to resume negotiations with Havana. "I have concluded that we should attempt to achieve normalization of our relations with Cuba," he declared in a presidential directive in March 1977. In quick succession, U.S. and Cuban negotiators signed agreements on fishing and maritime boundaries and posted diplomats in each other's capitals for the first time since relations were severed in 1961.
But when Cuba expanded its role in Africa by sending troops to defend Ethiopia's leftist government from invasion by neighboring Somalia, Carter decided to condition normalization on Cuba's withdrawal. After that, he backed away from normalization, even though a secret dialogue with Cuba continued during the remainder of his presidency.
By the time Bill Clinton took the oath of office, the Cold War was over and the Soviet Union dissolved. As Washington normalized relations with other former enemies, from Russia to Vietnam, the time seemed right to end the Cold War in the Caribbean too. But Clinton confronted a new obstacle -- the wealthy, well-organized and politically astute lobby of Cuban Americans in southern Florida. Although Clinton officials generally favored better relations with Havana, the president recoiled at the political price. Nevertheless, in a secret agreement brokered by Mexican President Carlos Salinas in 1994, during a crisis of dangerous attempted raft crossings to Florida by Cubans trying to leave the island, Clinton promised Castro a dialogue to move toward normalization. Talks produced a new migration agreement in 1995 but faltered in February 1996, when Cuban MIG fighters shot down two civil aircraft that had violated Cuban airspace, killing the four Cuban American pilots.
As Obama enters the White House, he enjoys many of the same propitious conditions that moved Kennedy, Ford, Carter and Clinton toward better relations with Havana. Kennedy sought to take advantage of the Cuban leadership's disenchantment with Moscow, which made it more open to U.S. blandishments; Obama faces new Cuban leaders who covet the economic benefits from travel, trade and investment that better relations would bring.
Ford and Kissinger realized that the U.S. policy of hostility toward Cuba was hurting U.S. relations abroad more than it was hurting Castro; Obama faces allies in Latin America and Europe that are virtually unanimous in their opposition to current U.S. policy.
Carter believed implicitly that engagement with Havana would prove more productive than isolation; Obama echoed those sentiments during the campaign.
Clinton hoped to gradually improve relations but was stymied by Cuban American opposition; Obama faces a less monolithic Cuban American community that has expressed growing support for engagement. A November poll of Cuban Americans in southern Florida found for the first time that a majority (55%) favors lifting the embargo. Obama's relative success among Cuban American voters (he won 35% of them in Florida, compared with just 25% for John Kerry in 2004) demonstrated that a Democrat could take a moderate stance on Cuba policy and still make inroads with this solidly Republican constituency.
This month marks not only the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution but also the anniversary of the formal break in U.S.-Cuban relations on Jan. 3, 1961. For perhaps the first time in the last half a century, both the policy logic and political realities of U.S.-Cuban relations are aligned to allow President Obama to cut the Gordian knot that has bedeviled so many of his predecessors. During the campaign, Obama pledged to meet with Raul Castro as part of a new policy of engagement. Summits require careful preparation, of course, but Obama should keep his pledge sooner rather than later.
For all Nixon's faults, his trip to China is remembered as a courageous, farsighted initiative that opened a new era in Sino-American relations. A trip to Cuba by President Obama would be no less historic.
William M. LeoGrande is dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University; Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive. They are coauthors of a forthcoming book, "Talking with Fidel: The Untold History of Dialogue between the United States and Cuba."