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Louis A. Perez Jr.: Remarkable change in US-Cuba relations
May 26, 2015
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US and Cuban diplomats are meeting this week to re-establish diplomatic relations, and Presidents Obama and Raul Castro chatted amiably in Panama last month. It’s a remarkable turn of events given the two countries’ history.

Demonising Fidel Castro has been an American obsession ever since the Cuban Revolution. As far as Americans were concerned, all of Cuba’s troubles were his fault. “It is Castro who is the issue,” pronounced New Hampshire Sen. Robert Smith in 2000. “A psychotic without religion and without scruples,” New York Rep. Alfred Santangelo agreed, adding that Castro was “a force for evil.”

Raul Castro picked up the role of American bogeyman when his brother stepped down. Cuba was oppressed “by a totalitarian regime of gangsters,” pronounced Florida Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart in 2010, “by gangsters, and for gangsters. Because that is what the Castro brothers are – gangsters.”

The vilification of Fidel and Raul meant, to American politicians, that Cuba lacked leaders with the minimal moral credibility necessary to negotiate in good faith. The Castro brothers were so irredeemably contemptible that US officials would not risk even being seen with them.

So, in 1994, at the inauguration of South African President Nelson Mandela, CNN correspondent John King recalled that Vice President Al Gore “literally ducked his way behind aides and ducked his way into doors to avoid Fidel Castro.”

President Clinton was obliged to explain an unexpectedly awkward moment at the United Nations in September 2000.

“I shook hands with a giant Namibian official, who towered over me,” he later narrated. “He then moved on, revealing a last greeter who had been invisible behind him: Fidel Castro. Castro stuck out his hand, and I shook it.”

The Clinton-Castro handshake was initially denied by the White House, then subsequently, grudgingly, confirmed. The Clinton administration quickly moved into damage-control mode. “It was a momentary exchange. It was nothing substantive,” White House spokesman Joe Lockhart reassured the press corps. The New York Post was not mollified. “Bill Clinton shakes hands with the murderer Fidel Castro,” the Post wrote the following day.

Hillary Clinton recalled a reception she attended in South Africa as first lady. “One of my challenges that afternoon was Fidel Castro,” who wanted to meet her, she recounted in a 2003 memoir.

State Department officials “told me to avoid him at all costs, since we had no diplomatic relations with Cuba, not to mention a trade embargo,” she continued. “I frequently looked over my shoulder during the reception, watching for his bushy gray beard in the crowd of faces. In the middle of a fascinating conversation with somebody ... I’d suddenly spot Castro moving toward me, and I’d high-tail it to a far corner of the room. It was ridiculous, but I knew that a single photograph, stray sentence or chance encounter could become news.”

Chance encounters between US and Cuban officials are no longer news. And encounters are no longer chance – they are planned as public events.

It’s about time. While there are legitimate criticisms to be made of Cuba’s repression of dissidents and lack of democracy, the United States has long had friendly relations with far more oppressive regimes. And there is much to be admired in the Cuban Revolution, which has greatly expanded literacy and access to medical care for the country’s citizens.

Rumours swirl that Secretary of State John Kerry will soon visit Havana. We’ve come a long way in just a few months.

Tribune News Service

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