New era in Cuba-US relations? We'll see.

In 1992, a ragtag group of 106 caravanistas confronted some 400 federal officials at the US-Mexico border in Laredo, Texas. Under the leadership of the late Rev. Lucius Walker, this was the first public challenge to the US blockade of Cuba. We were loaded with medicines, school supplies and used bicycles bound for Havana.

It was a time of fear and boding – for us, for Cuba, and for the Left in general. Months before the caravan, the US Treasury Department sent us letters threatening 10 years in prison and fines of $250,000 each if we went through with our plans. In Cuba, the population was suffering from a sudden and unexpected loss of Soviet trade, and the economy shrank by nearly half between 1989 and 1995. All my friends on the island lost weight, as there simply wasn’t enough food.  Meanwhile, right wingers in the US were still celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sensing “victory” in struggling Cuba, Congress passed the Torricelli Law, followed a few years later by Helms-Burton, both strengthening four decades of an economic blockade of the island. Miami’s infamously anti-communist Cuban-Americans were making plans for a triumphant return to a newly capitalist Cuba.

How times have changed. On December 17, Presidents Obama and Castro opened a new era of US-Cuba relations with simultaneous speeches in Washington and Havana. A prisoner exchange – three Cubans, who infiltrated terrorist groups in Miami planning to attack Cuba, for a US spy and a USAID agent – garnered immediate attention. But Obama may be casting a wider net, including restored diplomatic relations, relaxed travel restrictions, bilateral bank operations, increased family remittances and commerce, and removal of Cuba from the (completely unjustified) list of terrorist countries. It remains to be seen if a Tea Party Congress will try to sabotage these modest, and long overdue, changes.

Cuban President Raul Castro was circumspect. He heralded the move toward formal diplomatic relations, while noting the blockade is codified in law and only a willing US Congress can end it. Obama retains executive authority to modify its implementation, but how far will he go? Even if new travel regulations restrict US tourist visits and bilateral commerce is limited to its current one-way “cash for food and medicine,” it would help Cuba immensely if the US simply quit internationalizing the blockade – to the chagrin of our allies around the world. Cuba already enjoys friendly relations with the rest of the world, and has a well-developed pharmaceutical industry, a growing tourist industry, and the possibility of off-shore oil. If US officials simple leave Cuba alone by not intervening in the island’s international financial transactions, whether via backroom diplomacy, international shipping regulations, or outrageous fines levied against foreign banks, the Cuban economy will do quite well, thank you. After all, Cuba retooled its entire economy twice, from US technology pre-1959, to Soviet bloc technology until 1990, to an amalgam of Chinese, Latin American and European technology today. The fact that Cuba survived is a testament to the creativity of the Cuban people and the intelligence of the political leadership.

The next steps are unclear. Republicans and some Democrats are threatening to withhold money to establish an Embassy, though the current “Interest Section” in Havana is already fully operational, lacking only an Ambassador in name.

One wonders what caused Obama to act now. Perhaps we can take him at his word, that confrontation and blockades have accomplished nothing - aside from making 11 million Cubans poorer. After all, he’s right. Perhaps he has in mind the 2016 presidential election and changing voting patterns among younger Cuban-Americans in Florida. It’s hard to imagine this decision wasn’t consulted with Hillary Clinton. Or perhaps he is learning a lesson from the Middle East, where a series of US-inspired military conflicts and economic meddling spawned not democracy and prosperity, but ISIS and misery. Perhaps the Obama administration is learning the inevitable dialectic of unforeseen consequences. As he noted in his speech, “we know from hard-earned experience that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos,” a profound, if belated, indictment of US support for Cuban-American terrorist operations on the island as well as the blockade. Whatever Obama’s calculations may have been, in Cuba, socialism is alive and well, if changing in form, and Cubans are celebrating – watchfully. After 54 years of the most powerful country on earth with its boot on your collective neck, any relief is worthy of celebration.

Cuba continues to play an outsized role internationally. More Cuban doctors are fighting Ebola in West Africa (15,000 doctors volunteered!) than any other country, and they far outpace the US contribution. Cuban influence among youth and the Left in Latin America continues to be strong. Universal free health care and education make Cubans among the continent’s most healthy and educated people. The US stands to learn a lot from Cuban socialism. Let’s hope this new Obama initiative is not another false start, one more in a long history. It’s too early to pop the champagne, but this author jumped for joy, and cracked a beer.

By the way, after a day-long standoff, the caravan crossed into Mexico and continued on to Cuba via ship, the first of many such efforts at popular diplomacy and civil disobedience. Lucius often characterized us as a civil rights movement in defense of Cuban sovereignty. We were proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with eleven million Cubans, because whatever their political positions, I dare say not a single island resident supports the blockade. Too bad our political class wouldn’t listen back then.

Tom Hansen, PhD, was the National Coordinator of Pastors for Peace and the lead organizer on the first five Friendshipment caravans to Cuba. He currently leads a study abroad program in Cuba organized by the Autonomous University of Social Movements.