By Arturo Lopez Levy and Hugo Cancio
Last Friday, President Obama made an historic phone call to President Hassan Rouhani of the Islamic Republic of Iran. For millions of Americans and Iranians this conversation of minutes offers an opportunity to think on past decades of confrontations and a hope for less antagonistic relationships in the future. The presidents' phone conversation was possible because of some important leadership transitions in Washington and Teheran.
In 2008, President Obama proclaimed his flexibility to establish a dialogue not only with friends but also with adversaries. During the Iranian presidential elections, President Rouhani declared his will to negotiate and compromise with the West about his country's nuclear program. Although the US-Cuba relationship is lower in American priorities than Washington's policy towards Teheran, the positions presented by president Obama and Secretary Kerry make the public wonder why there are not similar bold steps of dialogue with the Raul Castro's government.
As Cuban-Americans committed to better relations between Cuba and the United States, we believe that there are favorable conditions in Havana, Washington and Miami to build greater understanding and direct communication between government, civil society, business and social leaders on both sides of the Strait of Florida.
The processes of economic reform and political liberalization in Cuba and the generational change in Miami are showing a Cuban nation that is eager to engage and for the links between the US and Cuba to grow.
It is ironic how Obama's White House can behave so boldly in American relationships with Iran, while choosing to ignores the current favorable conditions to engage with the Cuban government in a similar fashion. Solving conflicts with Cuba won't be easy but compared to the Iranian nuclear situation, presidential dialogue can produce a major breakthrough far less costly and achievable.
Iran still doesn't recognize Israel, our main ally and the only democracy in the Middle East. It had engaged in support for terrorism against American troops and allies in Iraq and Afghanistan. Islamic Guards are still training Hezbollah militias in Lebanon and fighting side by side with the Assad's regime in Syria, a government that has used chemical weapons against its own people.
In contrast, Cuba is undergoing a major economic reform, together with important steps of political liberalization. Ironically Cuba's travel reform has allowed Cubans more freedom to come to the US than the ones the US embargo permits to American citizens interested on visiting Cuba. That is not right.
US State Department reports on terrorism provide a clear comparison between serious accusations against Iran for attempts to commit acts of terrorism against American targets while not presenting a single evidence of Cuba's involvement in concrete acts of terror during the last twenty years. Furthermore, while Iran has supported the militias of the Mahdi Army in Iraq against American troops, Cuba has hosted and mediated peace negotiations to stop civil war in Colombia, the closest US ally in South America.
Engage, engage, and engage
As Cuban-Americans with profound feelings of love and admiration for our countries of origin and adoption we highly appreciate the recent agreements between Cuba and the United States about rescue and assistance in the sea. We are also conscious of the difficult history of conflict between the two countries and encourage the two governments to show flexibility, recognize past mistakes, and most importantly show a will to negotiate and compromise.
As President Carter recommended in his Havana visit in 2002, because the US is the most powerful country, Washington can afford to begin a positive cycle with some significant and decisive steps.
First, the State Department must take Cuba off the list of states sponsors of terrorism; second, President Obama should expand in a single stroke all categories of non-tourist travel, allowing all types of educational and cultural exchanges no matter its level or duration between the two countries. Third, Washington should encourage exchanges between American states and cities authorities and their Cuban counterparts who are now engaging in a process of political decentralization.
These steps can help the process of reforms in Cuba and effectively tear down misunderstandings and mistrust between Cuban and American population. Cuba and the United States should develop a comprehensive agreement in establishing bilateral cooperation in humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief in the Caribbean.
It is time for open and constructive cooperation between Washington and Havana in Haiti. Cuba should open categories of study and work travel for their citizens wanting to study and work in the United States beyond the two years limit of its recent migratory reform.
Last but not least, there are important remnants of past hostility and incendiary rhetoric between the two countries. A more disciplined approach will allow constructive attitudes to grow. It is time also to negotiate with maturity the cases of the remaining in prison four of the Cuban five and Alan Gross. These prisoners are a legacy of a never-ended Cold War conflict. Their cases are particularly symbolic to key constituencies in both countries and internationally. The UN group on arbitrary detentions has expressed substantive doubts about the fairness and impartiality of the legal processes that condemned them.
As in the case of American-Iranian relationships we understand that both of our nations have a unique opportunity to act wisely and pragmatically for the betterment of all Cubans and Americans. If not now, when?
Arturo Lopez Levy is lecturer and PhD Candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Hugo Cancio is a Miami businessman and Cuba activist, president and CEO of Fuego Enterprises, Inc. and founder and editor in chief of OnCuba Magazine.