D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton supports U.S. diplomatic ties to Cuba. (Courtesy Photo)
On July 1, President Obama announced that the U.S. is ending the stalemate with Cuba. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), among other people and groups, praised the president for his actions in restoring relations with the island nation.
“The announcement of re-opening embassies and re-establishing diplomatic relations is a historic moment for the U.S. and Cuba as we move toward reshaping our relationship to meet conditions in the 21st century,” Norton said. “A U.S. embassy in Havana is the best way to continue our efforts to support the desire of the Cuban people for democracy and increased economic opportunities. Re-opening the embassies at the very least can begin Cuba’s exposure to American values and democratic principles.”
The U.S. embassy is scheduled to open in Havana on July 20. The Cuban embassy in D.C. will open on the same day.
America and Cuba relations were on solid ground until revolutionary leader Fidel Castro kicked out the unpopular dictator Fulgencio Batista in early 1958 in a violent overthrow. Castro was declared prime minister of Cuba on Feb. 16, 1959, and began to take a leftist position on world affairs, such as aligning his country with the Soviet Union in the Cold War and supporting progressive people-oriented power movements and leaders in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Throughout his decades in power, Castro supported Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress in South Africa, and liberation movements in Angola and Zimbabwe.
On June 29, 1984, the Rev. Jesse Jackson persuaded Castro to release 16 American prisoners that were detained in Cuba. Nation of Islam Leader Louis Farrakhan has visited Cuba several times and is treated as a head of state while there.
The Congressional Black Caucus has long questioned the value of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba (imposed on Oct. 19, 1960) and, if Obama selects an ambassador to the country, political observers say that it could be U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), because of her passion in restoring ties with the country.
“I am glad to be co-sponsoring ‘The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act’ and ‘Free Trade with Cuba Act’ to forge a new path forward,” Lee said recently.
In addition, Cuba has a large African descent population, with estimates as high as 62 percent of Cubans possessing Black blood, according to a study by the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Measuring the Afro-Cuban population is complicated because many dark-skinned Cubans consider themselves Hispanic and not Black.
Despite the enthusiasm for re-establishing ties with Cuba, many conservative Republicans, a few Democrats, and many mainland Cubans are opposed to Obama’s initiative. They oppose any attempt to negotiate with the Castro regime because of its repressive human rights violations.
The opponents vow to block any ambassador that Obama names to the country and to keep the trade embargo in place.
However, there is a movement in the District to embrace Cuba. University of the District of Columbia Interim President James E. Lyons recently announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the university and the University of Havana. The universities will start their collaboration in January 2016 and will have an exchange program among their academic and administrative staffs, researchers, visiting scholars, as well as professional, graduate and undergraduate students.
“The initial areas of agreement will be between UDC’s David A. Clarke School of Law and the Law College at Havana University, where Fidel Castro attended law school more than 70 years ago,” Lyons said.
The arrangement was initiated and coordinated by UDC’s law school’s dean, Shelley Broderick.
D.C. Council member Vincent Orange (D-At Large), who chairs the council’s Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, said that Obama normalizing relations with Cuba is a good thing.
“It opens up borders and opens up opportunities for trade,” Orange said. “There are opportunities for travel and tourism with Cuba and that will benefit everybody in the city.”
Andy Shallal, the owner of the successful Busboys and Poets franchise in the Washington region, said he is excited about re-establishing ties with Cuba. “I would love to open up a Busboys and Poets in Havana,” Shallal said.