By Glen Thompson
When Cuban President Raul Castro toasted his 84th birthday on June 3, he was celebrating not only his birthday, but also two major diplomatic milestones: Cuba's first attendance at the Summit of the Americas Conference on April 10, and Cuba's official removal, on May 29, from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, issued by the U.S. State Department.
The first Summit of the Americas Conference took place 200 miles from Cuba in Miami, Dec. 9-11, 1994. The Summit was forged by the Clinton administration as a gathering of all democratically-elected heads of state in the Western Hemisphere. The only country not invited was Cuba.
Canadians may recall images of water canons and tear gas when Quebec City hosted the third Summit in 2001. The Summit is most remembered as the site of the U.S. Secret Service prostitution scandal, involving 21 women, that marred the 6th Summit in Cartagena, Colombia in 2012. Cuba's attendance this April, at the 7th Summit in Panama, was a surprising diplomatic turn around.
After the election of President Barack Obama, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and others began a hard push for the inclusion of Cuba leading to a weakly issued invitation to the 2009 conference in Trinidad and Tobago. Obama attended; Cuba did not.
After the 2012 Summit scandal and several countries renewing the threat to squash the conference over the lack of Cuban participation, the Summit had lost its zeal and was on the verge of being abandoned. Then an unexpected political breakthrough occurred between the United States and Cuba. Top secret meetings held in Ottawa, Canada, resulted in a diplomatic thaw, and Cuba eventually accepted an invitation to the Panama Summit.
Ironically the Summit, which began by politically isolating Cuba, became the historic meeting place between Obama and Castro. Despite the Florida Keys being only 90 miles from Cuba, this was the first, face-to-face, meeting of the two country's leaders in over 50 years.
As part of a diplomatic agreement reached in December, President Obama ordered the State Department to review its list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. On April 8, two days before Obama met with Castro, the State Department recommended Cuba be dropped from the list. On April 15, Obama filed the 45-day legal notice to rescind, and on May 29 Cuba was removed from the list. After a stalemate that lasted for five decades, suddenly the political dam had burst.
Cuba's removal from the terrorist list is part of normalizing diplomatic relations, but it also makes it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba. The chic forbidden paradise so many Canadians and eastern Europeans had to themselves will soon be shared with great waves of American tourists. The trendy firm AirBnB, began taking online rental-house bookings for Americans visiting Cuba in April. American Express is preparing for business on the island and MasterCard is already operating in Cuba.
Are these changes coming faster than the Cuban regime can manage them? Cuba's new president, Raul Castro, was a 1950s revolutionary alongside of his brother Fidel Castro. As Che Guevara's daughter, Aleida Guevara, said at a conference Kamloops, British Columbia, earlier this year: "Raul introduced my father [Che] to Fidel; he was there at the very beginning." Will the aging Cuban leader be nimble enough to channel the economic influx, or will the onset of American tourism and investment become an American Trojan Horse?
After Raul Castro, who will defend the Cuban Revolution? In January, Aleida Guevara told CBC: "I am a pediatrician, a doctor; I defend life, but I can shoot also, because I am trained to defend my national country, my territory."
As Cuba emerges from American economic suffocation, its future is promising but remains uncertain. The next Cuban leader will be pivotal.
Cuba was placed on the terror list during the Ronald Reagan era in 1982. Three countries remain on the State Department's' terror list, Syria, Sudan and Iran.
Image credit: Flickr/Alexander Schimmeck
Glen Thompson is an independent freelance journalist.