El Tiempo Latino
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US-Cuba: Florida's Straits

A personal approach

Armando Chapelli-oped | 12/26/2014, 12:46 p.m.
US-Cuba: Florida's Straits
(de izq. a der) Barack Obama, Papa Francisco y Raúl Castro, según la caricatura de Gogue | GOGUE PARA ETL

That was 1960, my last year in Cuba. To say that the ensuing decades saw US-Cuba relations sink steadily into the sordid would be understatement. The Mongoose and the Cobra continued to fight, to a draw in some cases, victory in others.

Recently declassified U S government documents point to Cuba's active role in—at the very least--aiding and abetting President John F. Kennedy's assassination. They also point to multiple contemporaneous plots by the Kennedy brothers to assassinate the Castro brothers and their cohorts. Decades of economic isolation imposed by the US Congress--and self-imposed by Castro's centralized economy--followed, guaranteeing harsh scarcity and disintegration of Cuba's civil society into a Hobbesian culture of "resolver". On rare occasions, the contenders staged "dialogues", but the Florida Straits bear accumulating layers of murder victims at the hands of Cuba's Navy and Air Force, ordered by Castro each and every time detente came within reach. Throughout, Mariel or balsero refugee waves--issued by Cuba--episodically dislocated South Florida's social-economic order. A new phase in this macabre joust was beginning when a perfect storm blew up in the Straits.

Just as Raul Castro was aggravating US-Cuba relations by reopening the Lourdes' espionage (SIGINT) center with Vladimir Putin's support, and allowing Russian navy use of Cuban ports, world oil prices collapsed. No longer could Raul rely on Venezuela's Maduro; no longer could he count on Putin's rubles. Why, with oil prices continuing to fall, Russia may not even be able to underwrite Putin's bare-chested expansionism in Europe. For Raul Castro, President Obama’s olive branch couldn't come at a better time: a bailout from collapse just as the wheels of Cuba's hobbled economy threatened to come off. But, other than distracting the public's attention from his rapidly falling popularity, why would President Obama take this risky sharp turn at this time?

Most politically adroit of US presidents in recent memory, Barack Obama read the tea leaves in last November's election. South Florida--sine qua non of presidential victory--had quietly slipped from growing Democratic influence. Incumbent Democratic Congressman Joe Garcia, the administration's steadfast ally, lost to newcomer Carlos Curbelo, a (Jeb) Bush conservative. State-wide, Republican-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist also lost to incumbent conservative Republican, Rick Scott. One way to divide, possibly conquer this voter-rich quadrant of the state for 2016 might be to fragment Cuban precincts by normalizing relations with Castro--a generational (and informational), wedge issue that could conceivably drive South Florida Latino voters away from the Republican Party. Doing nothing to help Cuba, on the other hand, could lead to disastrous results for Democrats.

For the Castro brothers retained the “nuclear” option of launching another Mariel-style flotilla bearing hundreds of thousands of refugees aimed at the Southern United States. Given President Obama's unilateral Executive Order granting favored status to twelve million persons living illegally in the country, turning away economic refugees by the thousands would have produced intolerable dissonance among true believers, massive chaos among Florida residents. Like the Florida Straits in a storm, the president’s choices had narrowed.

The reigning Republican leadership--Senator Marco Rubio, Congressmen Mario Diaz-Balart, Ileana Ros-Leithenen and Carlos Curbelo--would be well counseled to respond patiently, intelligently to the president's move.