So apparently Barack Obama is not a lame duck president.   His dramatic announcement that the U.S. was going to renew relations with Cuba after 53 years of boycott captured headlines around the world.

Back in 1958, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and their band of revolutionaries in the hills, caught the imagination of my generation.   We read Tad Szulc’s first hand accounts of meeting the rebels in The New York Times, and were thrilled when they succeeding in overthrowing the corrupt Batista regime, that had been in cahoots with American corporate and criminal elements (see “The Godfather: Part II”). Many of us even grew beards, inspired by their example.

Che, Fidel and their beards

Then came The Bay of Pigs attempt to overthrow the regime by Cuban exiles backed by the CIA (1961).  And the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962), when the world was on the verge of a nuclear catastrophe.   I can vividly remember those anxious days in New York, when we all felt that we were on the eve of destruction, and our lives were on the brink.

Those 13 days in May led to a stand-down, and perhaps the beginning of President Kennedy’s movement towards a post-Cold War policy when Khrushchev and the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles, and the Americans committed to end support for any attempts to overthrow the regime.

Khrushchev and Kennedy made a deal to end the Cuban missile crisis

53 Years of American Boycott

While President Eisenhower had originally recognized the Castro regime, a nationalization policy that affected American corporate interests led him in the waning days of his term to break-off diplomatic relations in January 1961 and initiate a boycott, which drove the originally independent Cuban revolutionary government closer to the Soviet block, to simply survive.

When all the Soviet block countries broke relations with Israel after the 1967 Six Day War,  following the Khartoum Arab League Summit conference, which announced the “3 nos” – no to negotiations, no to recognition and no to peace with Israel” – Castro, who always admired the Israelis, and particularly the kibbutz movement, maintained ties with the country, only ended relations after the Yom Kippur War in 1973, under pressure from the non-aligned movement.

During the past 53 years, the revolution has had many achievements, including universal literacy and an excellent comprehensive national health care program (see Michael Moore’s “Sicko”), but also was guilty of human rights abuses.

In the interim, many people I know in Israel managed to visit Cuba, like veteran Iraqi-born activist Latif Dori (just turned 80) and even Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau when he was Chief Rabbi, and they came back with vivid stories of Cuba and of the small Jewish community.  And we were reminded of the wonders of Cuban music when Wim Wenders “Buena Vista Social Club” became a worldwide hit, showcasing many of the wonderful veteran Cuban musicians.   While Pete Seeger’s version of the Cuban liberation song “Guantanamera” written by poet Jose Marti remained popular everywhere.  Despite the restrictions, I once tried to go there as part of a journalistic delegation in the late 80s, one of the groups allowed by the Americans to go in an organized fashion, but unfortunately it was cancelled.

Entering a new era

So here we are, on the verge of 2015, and as President Obama said, 53 years of boycott have not worked.  With President Raul Castro, one of the revolutionary heroes and Fidel’s brother creating a more liberal regime, and with a new generation of Cuban Americans no longer carrying the baggage of anti-Castro hatred, and wanting to see the homeland again, we have entered a new era.

I was genuinely excited to see photos of Raul Castro and Barack Obama next to each other on the front page of the International New York Times.  Clearly Obama’s act is another victory for the politics of engagement over the politics of boycott.

Just two further comments.

The Pope and the President

1) It was fascinating to see the role that Argentinian-born Pope Francis played in the process.   He sent letters to both President Obama and President Castro, calling upon them to reconcile, and the Vatican also hosted some of the behind the scenes back-channel negotiations which made the agreement possible.

This makes me wonder if Pope Francis and the Vatican can’t also play a constructive role in helping to facilitate a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including an arrangement for managing the sites holy to the three monotheistic faiths in the Old City of Jerusalem.   An equitable solution to the future of Jerusalem, and particularly the area of the Holy Basin, is one of the keys to resolving the entire conflict.

2) Since  Obama has demonstrated that he is not a lame duck president, and that he is ready to use his constitutional powers to advance important foreign policy goals, it is to be hoped that the President, together with Secretary of State Kerry and the rest of the foreign policy team, will invest the effort to find wise and creative ways of actively facilitating a viable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, based upon a two-state solution, before it’s too late.

President Obama and Pope Francis – Can they help make peace in the Middle East as well?