Obama’s 2nd Cuban Revolution and What It Might Say About Iran

The president seems to have regained what some observers said he had lost: He’s having a good time being president again.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Obama's Cuba speech shown on a TV screen in a Cuban-American-owned coffee shop in Union City, New Jersey, Dec. 17, 2014.
Obama's Cuba speech shown on a TV screen in a Cuban-American-owned coffee shop in Union City, New Jersey, Dec. 17, 2014.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

President Obama on Wednesday employed a strategy known on the battlefield as coup de main, a strike of the hand, a bold stroke that can decide the fate of campaigns. Under cover of the release of Alan Gross from the Villa Marista prison in Havana, Obama launched a surprise diplomatic attack that upended American-Cuban relations: It was Obama’s Cuban Revolution. For someone who’s already been eulogized as a lame duck, he certainly seems to pack a punch.

Gross’ release was a prerequisite: The USAID contractor who was convicted of espionage for selling satellite equipment to members of the Cuban Jewish community had become a cause célèbre of the organized Jewish community, a symbol of the Cuban regime’s ongoing malevolence for members of Congress. His return on the first day of Hanukkah brought joy to the Jewish community in particular and America as a whole; it also paved the way for Obama to break down the walls that have separated the U.S. and Cuba since the Communist revolution 55 years ago in one fell swoop.

Though he didn’t credit him directly, Obama used Albert Einstein’s famous definition of insanity to give his assessment of the efficacy of the five-decades old effort to bring Cuba to its’ knees: “I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.” He had another telling comment: “Let us leave behind the legacy of both colonization and communism.” Obama does not share the nostalgia of many Cuban émigrés and their conservative backers for the pre-Castro “good ol’ days” that never really existed, when ostensibly independent Cuba was the plaything of American conglomerates and mafia bosses. Obama reconnected to his anti-colonialist youth, which his detractors say he never abandoned anyway.

Their own reactions seemed just as anachronistic, if not more so, a blast from a past when Cuba was the menace that 52 years ago brought the world closer than it’s ever been to a nuclear Armageddon in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Some of the Cuban émigrés, themselves the pampered children of the pre-Castro Batista regime, are still carrying a grudge against John Kennedy for having failed to use the U.S. Air Force during the Bay of Pigs invasion. By breaking the curious code of silence that has surrounded Cuba, Obama made the American policies of the past 50 years seem a little ridiculous; you can’t expect anyone who supported them to take that lying down.

Obama’s critics will try to portray his moves as another in a long line of capitulations and surrenders to evil dictators. Their case might have been stronger were it not for the dire straits that Vladimir Putin finds himself in these days, the same Putin that these very same critics were fawning over not too long ago. If only Obama was as tough and determined as Putin they said of the leader who has now brought his country to the brink of financial collapse.

Obama used the same tactics on Cuba as he did on immigration amnesty: he used his executive privileges to the hilt and then told Congress that they can finish the job, if they’re so inclined, or not. It’s up to them. This maneuver plays into what was the subtext of Wednesday’s Cuba drama for many Israel-watchers: The administration’s claim that it does not need Congress in order to suspend sanctions against Iran, only to revoke them altogether. This assertion could doubly motivate Republican leaders, if they needed any encouragement, to try and exert as much control over the Iran negotiations, before the fact, if possible, and not after.

The same Israeli-focused ears could not but hear Iranian echoes in some of Obama’s objections to the Cuban embargo regime. It does not serve America’s interests, he could say, to push Iran to the point of collapse: “We know from hard-earned experience that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos.”

It’s hard to tell whether Obama’s diplomatic blitz will budge his intractably low approval ratings, but he does seem to be on a roll. The economy is healthy, oil prices are plummeting and his arch-nemesis Putin is hanging on for dear life. In a few short weeks Obama will have to face a combative and confrontational Congress, and things could take a turn for the worse. For now, at least, he seems to have found something important trait that observers thought he had lost: He’s having a good time being president again.

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