US-Cuba thaw shows power of talking

The world has often seemed on fire of late. There has been a horrific massacre in a Pakistani school. A cyber-hacking apparently organised by North Korea, which might come to look very familiar in years to come. The Sydney siege. The barbarians of Isis unbowed. Ebola continuing to spool out. Russia's economy tumbling.

So it's well to note a milestone of huge positive significance when it occurs. The United States' detente with Cuba, announced all of a sudden by the presidents of both countries late last week, was such a moment.

The two countries, all of 170 kilometres apart, famously provided the world with one of its most fraught episodes: the 13 days in 1962 when Cold War armageddon threatened.

The Soviet Union had put nuclear missiles onto the island nation, partly in response to another ignominious moment - the CIA's botched Bay of Pigs invasion attempt. The US ratcheted up its own nuclear response. A stand-off followed; good luck was a big part of the peaceful end to the saga.

Ancient history, perhaps, but not for Cuba, which has laboured under a suffocating US embargo for more than 50 years - repressive, poor, ready for an opening up. President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro, brother of the more famous Fidel, finally started to make it happen last week, after 18 months of secret negotiations.

The embargo remains, but it has been shaken loose. That is a powerful step forward for both countries. It is also a tribute to the leadership of both figures. But even more than all of that, it is a lesson in the possibilities of diplomacy - of trust and of compromise - which every country might consider.

Even though most observers thought the Cuba freeze illogical and outdated, strong forces kept it in place for decades: a noisy Cuban-American lobby, a lingering US tendency to paint countries as good or evil, a history of ill-timed, provocative gestures by Cuba.

Obama has long suggested he would try to change the US approach. Asked in 2007 if he would meet the leaders of Iran and Cuba, he suggested that he would.

"The notion that somehow not talking to countries is punishment to them - which has been the guiding diplomatic principle of [the Bush] administration - is ridiculous."

That was right. The response from his critics, like opponent John McCain, that he was "naive", was wrong.

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It still remains to be seen if Obama can engineer any kind of similar breakthrough with Iran. Talks continue, but the deadlines keep fading away. Regardless, it is certainly worth trying. International isolation seldom shakes dictators from their posts, but it always punishes ordinary people.

Pope Francis, continuing an impressive streak, popped up as another lynchpin in the breakthrough. Obama praised him for "pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is".

That was well-put. Even in the lawless waters of international relations, not all is realpolitik. Nor is it all mere chance. Great changes can come peacefully. Ceaseless suspicion can be more dangerous than trying to talk to each other.

 - The Dominion Post


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