Pope + President (- Ukraine) = Hope for Cuba ?


Pope Francis, photo from The Guardian


 President Obama and Pope Francis will meet on Thursday.  The Washington Post includes the embargo as a possible topic of conversation.
Advisers to the White House on faith-based issues, including ones involving the Catholic Church, said the two may discuss topics such as the U.S.-led Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the pope’s May visit to the Holy Land, the U.S. embargo of Cuba, Syria and the plight of religious minorities around the world.
Certainly the Vatican is aligned with the rest of the world in calling for its end.  Not surprisingly, both of the previous pontiffs reiterated that position during visits to Cuba.
However, Secretary of State Kerry lay the groundwork for a more direct consequence of the meeting when he requested the Pope’s assistance to achieve the humanitarian release of Alan Gross, a contracted US government agent. As I argued in an earlier post (here), and as hard liners fear, a logical response is for the Pope to request the humanitarian treatment and release of three Cuban agents imprisoned by the US.
How do we imagine Senators Menendez and Rubio responding to such a direct appeal from the Pope?  Will they dare use the same scurrilous language against the Holy Father as hard liners employ against Cardinal Ortega?
 A series of statements and events even before President Obama spoke in Miami in November suggest that the administration is preparing for a significant change in US relations with Cuba.  I am keeping a tally here.
 Conventional wisdom is the President waits until after the midterm elections.  However if he fears the Republicans will take the Senate, he needs to move on Cuba before facing hostile control of the Foreign Relations Committee.   My bet had been on a break-through by this spring, probably involving removal from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, a general license for purposeful travel and action related to the prisoners.
 Some advisers may be arguing for delay until the situation in Venezuela is clearer on the dubious premises that President Maduro will fall and that Cuba will become more responsive to US demands.
 However, I am more concerned about inertia created by the mess in Ukraine.  Faced with the most dangerous confrontation between nuclear powers since the Cuban Missile Crisis, will the White House have the band width to also address the long term but non-critical festering sore of policy toward Cuba?
 The Ukraine/Crimea analogy plays in several ways vis a vis Cuba.  Certainly Russia’s belief in an implicit right to protect national security in the near abroad by whatever means necessary is not too different from US presumptions about Cuba and the Western Hemisphere in the Monroe Doctrine and Platt Amendment (not to mention our practice during my lifetime in Honduras, Panama, Haiti, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile, Grenada, Dominican Republic, and Guatemala).
 In principle Ukraine has as much right as Cuba to have a self-determined political and economic system and international alliances despite how much it disquiets the big neighbor.
 In practice certain limits cannot be broached.  From the perspective of the adjoining power, Cuba could not offer a base for Soviet missiles and Ukraine cannot align with the European Union and NATO.
 The US would be in a better moral position to criticize the restoration of Crimea and its naval base to Russia and to object to further extension of Russian authority over eastern Ukraine if it ended the embargo and returned Guantanamo as recommended by the Pentagon and Michael Parmly, former head of the US Interests Section. (Read his visionary paper here.


 John McAuliff

Fund for Reconciliation and Development

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