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Defining moment for America

Published:Friday | December 19, 2014 | 12:00 AM

NOT SINCE Richard Nixon's trip to China in '72 - the declaration of wars by the two Bushes and Nixon's withdrawal from Vietnam notwithstanding - has an American president made so dramatic a foreign policy move than Barack Obama's announcement of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba and other efforts to normalise relations with the Caribbean island.

The point is, far more than its substance, Cuba is emotive to America. Which explains why, for more than half a century, Washington has not had formal diplomatic relations with Havana and has maintained a trade embargo against the Caribbean country long after the irrelevance of the project was apparent to everyone but for a handful of hard-line Cuban Americans holed up in Miami's Little Havana.

The logic of this decision apart, significant factors are likely to have helped to propel Mr Obama. First, the majority of Americans don't support the embargo, as is the case with upwards of 60 per cent of young Cuban-Americans. Second, Mr Obama is ineligible for re-election, so he has less need to be overly concerned with the sensitivities of the Little Havana crowd.

ISOLATION DOES NOT WORK

But more critical is the logic. As this newspaper has argued, and Mr Obama observed in his speech on Wednesday, the 50 years of attempting to treat Cuba as a hemispheric pariah "have shown that isolation has not worked". Fidel Castro survived 10 US presidents, and his brother, Ra?l Castro, still presides over a communist government whose collapse the trade embargo and isolation were intended to foment.

Moreover, what the Cubans call 'the blockade' is a good insulation for the Cuban government against criticisms of domestic human-rights violations and its inability to lift living standards.

At the same time, America's continued isolation of Cuba nearly a quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War helped engender an atmosphere of unease with its hemispheric partners. Regional countries are wary of the genuineness of Washington's embrace when America refuses to acknowledge a member of a family who may have been prodigal but has since returned.

Indeed, that posture makes no sense in the context of the deep economic ties that America has had with China over the past 40 years, although the communists remain in power in Beijing. The communists also still run Vietnam, with which relations have long been normalised.

GREATER LEVERAGE

What Mr Obama is doing through executive action - providing the green light for the establishment of embassies, further easing travel restrictions, and enhancing private financial transactions - is substantial but won't translate to a complete end of the embargo. Much remains in the province of Congress, whose members, hopefully, can escape the emotion of the ageing hard-liners of Little Havana and engage the logic of change.

They should appreciate, too, that Mr Obama's shift gives America greater leverage beyond its own muscle. Washington will now have increased moral authority to request that its friends in the region, including Jamaica and the rest of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) who have good relations with Cuba, urge Havana to embrace the values of human rights and democracy they cherish and live by.

From a historical perspective, Mr Obama's Cuba policy will be a defining legacy for his presidency and the United States.