President Obama and Raul Castro in 2013.
“President Obama is a decent man. I have read part of his biography – the two books which have been published, though not entirely – and I think he is a humble man.”
Many American dilettantes who have read only a few pages of Dreams from My Father could have said the same thing. But instead, these are the words of Raul Castro, the Cuban leader who, along with his brother, has remained one of the U.S.’s last Cold War-era foes.
At last week’s Summit of the Americas in Panama City, Castro and Obama met for a formal discussion, the first time the leaders of the two countries have done so since before the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s. And it came as the U.S. attempted a similar rapprochement across the Atlantic and the Hormuz in Iran. Last week’s news from Iran, however, was not praise of Obama from the Ayatollah, but instead news that the regime
considered some of the White House fact sheet on the preliminary deal as contrary to what had been previously agreed upon. Both nations want to break the ice, but it appears that Castro and Khamenei possess different levels of enthusiasm for wielding the ice pick.
As Obama tries to adhere to his 2008 campaign pledge to reach out to Americas Cold War-era enemies only if they too are willing to give a little, we should note how these enmities began in the first place. While Cuba had once been an American protectorate and one of the central battlefields of the Spanish-American War at the turn of the twentieth century, the revolutionaries and the communism they espoused in the 1950s, plus their Soviet support, meant that the island would be a natural American enemy during the Cold War. And while Iran, and its Shah, had once been staunch American allies during the same Cold War, Shiite revolutionaries overthrew the monarchy during the 1979 Islamic Revolution and subsequently took American hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. These two events ensnared both countries in conflict and cold war in the subsequent decades. While the genesis of our conflicts with these two countries took place in the last century, their effects continue to play out today. Enmities and enemies are hard to unmake.
But at the same time, twin efforts are currently taking place that would take unprecedented steps to unmake these very enmities. While the Iranian regime is certainly not rhetorically making a warm embrace of the American president, it appears that Castro is doing just that. But at the same time, he unloaded a litany of past grievances, making clear that his qualified respect for the President does not mean he has generous words for the United States. Perhaps our countries are so far removed, and have been so for such a long time, that all we know of each other are excerpts – of biographies, of goods sold (cigars and old cars), and of the other’s military (symbolized by Guantanamo and Cuban agents in the U.S. during the Cold War). But this is a start.