POLITICS

Originally billed as temporary, U.S.-Cuba diplomatic freeze lasted 2,815 weeks

12/17/2014 06:29 EST | Updated 02/16/2015 05:59 EST
WASHINGTON - The suspension of American relations with Cuba was announced in a late-evening statement from the White House.

It was originally billed as short-term.

The 8:30 p.m. message from Dwight Eisenhower's office declared that enough was enough — the United States had suffered one too many indignities from the unpredictable regime that had overrun Cuba.

The final straw was Fidel Castro's decree that he'd only allow 11 personnel at the American embassy in Havana — the rest had 48 hours to get out of his country.

"There is a limit to what the United States in self-respect can endure," said the presidential statement of Jan. 3, 1961.

"That limit has now been reached. It is my hope and my conviction that in the not-too-distant future it will be possible for the historic friendship between us once again to find its reflection in normal relations of every sort."

That not-too-distant future appears to have arrived — 2,815 weeks and one day later.

The president who eventually announced plans to normalize relations with Cuba wasn't John F. Kennedy, who took office a couple of weeks after the announcement, nor eight of his successors.

It was announced Wednesday by a president who never lived in a world with normal Cuba-U.S. relations.

"These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It's time for a new approach," said President Barack Obama, who was born in August 1961.

"Today America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past, so as to reach for a better future."

He noted that the U.S. has had relations for 35 years with a bigger communist country, China, and also with Vietnam — where so many Americans died fighting communism.

When the U.S. announced its Cuba suspension, it wasn't the only country to do so that week. So did Peru — which re-established relations in 1972.

The Americans had grown increasingly frustrated as the Castro regime was sucked into the Soviet orbit.

A New Year's celebration a few days before the Eisenhower announcement featured Russian military equipment being paraded through the streets of Havana.

Three Americans were arrested the day of the announcement, two of them embassy staff. They'd gone to a police station to report a robbery and wound up in an argument with the officers.

Castro accused the U.S. embassy of harboring spies and planning an invasion to overthrow him.

That unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion did occur, three months later. And Castro was once said to joke: "If surviving assassination attempts were an Olympic event, I would win the gold medal."

By the time of the diplomatic suspension, staff at the U.S. embassy had already been chopped by nearly half amid the tension.

Economic ties had also weakened. The Jan. 3 announcement prompted a New York Times analyst to correctly speculate that a ban on imports from Cuba would be added to the recently-announced ban on exports.

The next day, the stars-and-stripes were lowered at the U.S. embassy.

Eight-seven embassy staff, their families, and other Americans in Cuba flooded out of the country. Cubans looking to escape jammed the entrances of their ship, pleading for visas. One man waved his wartime service record for the U.S. Army, according to a report from the Associated Press.

Obama's fiercest opponent Wednesday was the son of Cuban immigrants.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio noted that he'd grown up in the Cuban expat community and understood the Castro regime better than the president ever could.

He said the Castro regime would take advantage of the new U.S. ties to cement its own grasp on power, and he accused Obama of having thrown away U.S. leverage.

"This president is the single worst negotiator we have had in the White House in my lifetime," Rubio said.

"(He) has basically given the Cuban government everything it asked for and received no assurances of any advances in democracy and freedom in return."

Back when the suspension was announced in 1961, it enjoyed massive support. Newspaper editorials were nearly unanimous in backing Eisenhower, and so were the opposition Democrats: "We certainly had sufficient provocation," Sen. William Fulbright told United Press International.

American views appear to have changed.

Gallup polls, for many years now, have shown American majority support for re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba.

The same is true in Florida — the key presidential swing state that's home to the staunchest anti-Castro expats.

To which Rubio shot back: "I don't care if 99 per cent of people in polls disagree with my position," describing the announcement as a concession to tyranny.

Here's what happens next:

—The countries plan to reopen embassies in Washington and Havana. A U.S. State Department official will head to Havana in the new year, to get started.

—The countries' officials can co-operate again on counter-narcotics and public health issues, like Ebola.

—Travel rights will be expanded for people in 12 categories, including professional workshops and cultural activities.

—Americans will be allowed to send $2,000 to Cuban relatives, up from the current $500.

—U.S. debit and credit cards will be allowed in Cuba, and American institutions will be allowed to use Cuban banks.

—U.S. telecommunications providers will be allowed to sell goods in Cuba, and set up infrastructure there.

But there are limits.

As Obama noted Wednesday, the trade embargo against Cuba has been legislated by the U.S. Congress.

That not only means there are hurdles to new economic co-operation, but also that the next U.S. president could easily cancel Obama's executive announcement Wednesday.

There's another logistical complication: Congress writes the budget.

"I anticipate I'll be the chairman of the (Senate's) Western Hemisphere Subcommittee on Foreign Relations," Rubio said.

"I anticipate we're going to have a very interesting couple of years, discussing how you're going to get an ambassador nominated and how you're going to get an embassy funded."