The Great Thaw

Air Force One lands in Havana, Cuba for the first time in history. (Photo Credit: Reuters)

Air Force One lands in Havana, Cuba for the first time in history. (Photo Credit: Reuters)

¿Viva la revolucion? ¡Viva la diplomacia!

José Martí International Airport stands less than ten miles from Havana. Fifty years ago, the Central Intelligence Agency destroyed the airfield to ground Cuban aircraft just days before the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion. It served Soviet airlines for decades, starved of American business by congressional embargo. And in a world dominated by the United States, that reality seemed unlikely to change.

Yesterday, José Martí International Airport welcomed Air Force One for the first time in history. Bienvenido a Cuba, Presidente Obama.

It’s hard to believe that a country just ninety miles from Florida hadn’t seen a sitting U.S. president since penicillin was the cutting edge of medical science. The American embassy in Havana was closed in 1961, and it took sixteen years to reopen as an “Interests Section” with limited diplomatic standing. Restored to a formal embassy last year, the complex represents a final break with the past. The final thaw of the last true Cold War battlefield.

No one knew what would happen when President Obama announced the resumption of diplomatic relations in late 2014. Born just before the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, he understood what he was asking of Americans who had lived that history themselves. To many, Cuba remained a communist foothold in the democratic West. An enemy to be feared and punished, not a neighbor to be calmed and courted.

But times change, and nations must change with them. It’s been forty years since President Nixon normalized relations with the People’s Republic of China and twenty since President Bush led American business into post-Soviet Russia. No one has seriously demanded we sever ties with those countries, though they pose far greater threats to the security and prosperity of the United States than Cuba ever could.

We must continue to pressure the Castro regime on its moral and humanitarian failures. But unlike China, Cuba does not disappear its dissidents to torturous gulags. And unlike Russia, Cuba has not invaded and annexed the territory of its neighbors. Their wrongs don’t make others right, but they highlight our hypocrisy in accepting the yuan and ruble while the Cuban peso lies forgotten.

Perhaps Americans have finally realized the depths of that hypocrisy. The Land of Opportunity grew into the most unequal country in the world, with wealth and power increasingly concentrated among a shrinking few. Somewhere along the way, our window to a better world became a damning mirror of oligarchy and corruption. Cubans undoubtedly deserve better than their government. More and more, Americans seem to agree.

After all, the United States has always been a nation of contradictions. The Declaration of Independence claimed that all men were created equal, except the slaves who served its authors. The Statue of Liberty overlooks an island where the poor and desperate were welcomed on one pier and banished on another. Cuba is no different, leading the Caribbean in science, medicine, and technology under the shadow of its communist past.

Small steps, you might think, but such is the nature of change. One step at a time.

What comes next? The President has asked Congress to dismantle what remains of the embargo, noting that it produced far more suffering than political reform. The Treasury Department has approved the first American factory on Cuban soil in decades, building tractors to help struggling local farmers. There have even been rumors of President Raúl Castro coming to Washington, though the Republican Congress is unlikely to extend an invitation. Whatever happens, we can do far more as open partners than we ever could as silent enemies.

They have a saying in Havana. “No es facil,” Spanish for “it’s not easy.” A difficult road lies ahead, and it will take time to erase a half century of hatred and suspicion. So let’s get started. The long winter is over, and it’s long past time these neighbors came in from the cold.

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