Faced with a hostile, do-nothing Congress committed only to obstruction, President Barack Obama announced that he would act on his own if necessary, using his pen, his phone and his platform. Last weekend, we witnessed the power of that commitment, as he shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro at the Summit of Americas in Panama, moving to normalize relations with Cuba after more than 50 years of hostility. With that act — soon to be followed by striking Cuba from the list of terrorist nations — the president opened up a new era with our neighbors to the South. No longer will the United States stand apart in its fixation on isolating Cuba.
The effort to overthrow and then isolate Cuba began over 55 years ago. In 1960, the U.S. still resorted regularly to “gunboat diplomacy” across the hemisphere, intervening in countries largely on behalf of U.S. multinationals and the local landed gentry. Fifty-five years ago, South Africa was still under apartheid and Africa was still largely colonized. In our own country, segregation was still enforced in the South. Blacks rode on the back of the bus and were routinely deprived of their right to vote. The U.S. was just beginning to escalate its intervention into Vietnam. China, ruled by Mao, was supposedly allied with the Soviet Union and unalterably committed to communism. We built the wall around Cuba even as the wall still divided Berlin and the Cold War divided Europe.
Over the years, the world was transformed, yet somehow we sustained the wall around Cuba. Our neighbors to the south grew more independent — and more democratic. We came to celebrate much of the world that Castro supported — Mandela free and South Africa democratic, Angola free, the covert wars in Central America over, civil rights transforming America. Instead of warring on Vietnam, we now include it in trade negotiations for a new partnership.
Yet amid all this change, the wall stayed up around Cuba. Presidents came and went. The Cubans turned out to be helpful in the war on drugs and the war on terror. We made Castro into a symbol of independence for developing nations in the hemisphere and beyond. Cuban doctors and teachers were dispatched across this hemisphere and Africa, dispensing aid not revolution. But walls create shadows, foster ignorance and fear.
The embargo continues — only Congress can lift that — but at the Summit of the Americas, President Obama brought down the wall, meeting with his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro. This was the first time the two nations’ leaders met for substantive talks since Vice President Richard Nixon met with Fidel Castro in 1959.
“The cold war has been over for a long time,” the president said in his opening remarks at the summit. “I am not interested in having battles, frankly, that began before I was born.” Castro praised the president, calling him an “honest man” from a “humble background,” saying, “I admire him.”
This historic meeting can open a new era in U.S. relations with the hemisphere. It doesn’t solve all the problems between Cuba and the U.S., but, as the president said, it puts us on a “path toward the future.”
Here is President Obama at his best. He has always argued that we should talk unconditionally with our adversaries, even while agreeing only conditionally. Now he has done the nation an inestimable service of ending the failed policy toward Cuba and opening the possibility of new relations with our neighbors to the south.
The U.S. will gain in influence in the hemisphere. Cuba will change far faster with the wall down than it did behind the wall.
These days, the Washington press corps seems fixated on the 2016 presidential election that is more than a year and a half away. But before we turn our attention to the contenders vying to be the next president, we might pay attention to the president we have. This weekend, President Obama made America stronger by discarding a failed policy long out of date. For that we should all be grateful.