A normally routine bit of Washington bureaucracy could have a big impact on U.S. relations with Cuba, either ushering in a long-stalled detente or slamming the door on rapprochement, perhaps until the scheduled end of the Castro era in 2018.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry must decide within a few weeks whether to advocate that President Barack Obama should take Cuba off a list of state sponsors of terrorism, a collection of Washington foes that also includes Iran, Syria and Sudan.
Cuban officials have long seen the terror designation as unjustified and told visiting American delegations privately in recent weeks that they view Kerry's recommendation as a litmus test for improved ties. They also hinted the decision could affect discussions over the release of jailed U.S. subcontractor Alan Gross, whose detention in 2009 torpedoed hopes of a diplomatic thaw.
There's more there, including the reminder that taking this action would not change anything with regard to the half-century economic embargo against the island nation.
My opinion is that the Obama administration would be savvy if it were to completely normalize Cuban relations not only by removing them from this list, but also lifting the embargo and taking other steps necessary to realize the economic potential an open relationship with Cuba could present. Anybody still want to call me a socialist?
Fidel Castro has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. His brother Raul wants to pull a Pope Benedict (in five years, anyway). As for Cuba's best friend -- it hasn't been Russia for more than 20 years -- well, there's a changing of the guard in Venezuela, as you may aware. The times are ripe for more change.
By opening markets between the two countries, the president would give a unexpected boost to the US economy. He would signal that the US does not wish to antagonize or provoke confrontation everywhere in the world (as it is perceived to be doing in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Korean peninsula, the Middle East, etc.). On the heels of a generally well-received trip to the Holy Land, and in a speech full of the awe-striking rhetorical flourish which is the foundation for his global reputation, another olive branch extended to a long-time adversary in our own hemisphere would be a significant, sea-changing development and a broad brush stroke in a legacy he has shown interest in burnishing.
But the greatest blow to be struck would be entirely political in nature. Obama could crush the GOP in Florida -- and elsewhere -- by taking bold and peaceful commercial action in the Western hemisphere. Just as a generation of Cubans came to despise JFK (and Democrats generally) after the Bay of Pigs, so an American president could seal a relationship with that generation's children and grandchildren... for another couple of generations.
Noramlizing relations would also diminish a sore spot with the rest of the vast Latin American community: ending the "wet foot/dry foot" immigration policy that causes so much resentment among Mexican Americans would further advance the already-bright prospects for CIR.
Just to make clear, I am not advocating another free trade agreement in Latin America. It needs to be fair trade. And while I agree with the many views that the situation with Alan Gross should be resolved beforehand, a full and complete normalization of relations with Cuba is long overdue.
Removing Cuba from the terrorist-state list would be the proper first step in the right direction. And there should be more to quickly follow it.