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Time for U.S. and Cuba to kiss and make up

By Simon Tisdall, Special for CNN
April 8, 2013 -- Updated 1514 GMT (2314 HKT)
Beyoncé and Jay-Z were photographed in Havana last week, apparently celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary.
Beyoncé and Jay-Z were photographed in Havana last week, apparently celebrating their fifth wedding anniversary.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Beyoncé and Jay-Z were seen in Cuba last week, apparently celebrating their anniversary
  • A United States embargo restricts American citizens' right to visit Cuba
  • Simon Tisdall argues the 60-year stand-off between Cuba and the U.S. harms both countries
  • The ostracism of Cuba's people is unfair, unkind and unnecessary, he says

Editor's note: Simon Tisdall is assistant editor and foreign affairs columnist of the Guardian. He was previously foreign editor of the Guardian and the Observer and served as White House corespondent and U.S. editor in Washington D.C..

(CNN) -- Right-wing U.S. Republicans are up in arms over Cuba again. Their ostensible cause for concern is last week's visit to the island by Beyoncé and Jay-Z, who were photographed in Havana, apparently celebrating their wedding anniversary.

Read more: Lawmakers ask why Beyoncé and Jay-Z went to Cuba

These blinkered conservatives need to get over themselves. The 60-year stand-off between the U.S. and Cuba is absurd. It is counterproductive and harmful to both countries. It is time to end this Cold War anachronism, kiss and make up.

Anger over Beyoncé's supposed breach of the U.S. embargo rules restricting American citizens' travel to Cuba is symbolic of a deeper fear among right-wingers. Two key factors have changed since the days -- not so long ago -- when Washington seemed to be regularly threatening the Castro government with Iraq-style overthrow.

Simon Tisdall
Simon Tisdall

One is that George W. Bush has been replaced by a Democrat. As Barack Obama enters his second and final term, immune to electoral imperatives, conservatives worry he may use his freedom of action to effect an historic rapprochement with Cuba. American liberals certainly believe he should do so.

The second change is in Cuba itself, where the government, now led by Fidel Castro's brother, Raoul, has embarked on a cautious program of reform. The government -- dubbed the world's longest-running dictatorship by the American right -- has even set a date for its own dissolution.

Doing what "dictators" rarely do, Raoul Castro announced in February that in 2018, he would hand over power and that any successor would be subject to term limits. The Castro brothers have reportedly chosen a career communist, first vice president Miguel Diaz-Canel, to succeed them. But in reality, once their grip on power is relaxed, anything may happen.

The two Florida Republicans who have been making a fuss about the Beyonce visit are Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart. They are veterans, and beneficiaries, of the anti-Castro campaign that has long been waged from Little Havana, in Miami, the home to the state's large Cuban exile population. The Cuban vote, as it is known, has traditionally gone to Republicans.

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But Obama's approach is the antithesis of the politics of hate and division. He broke that mold last year, making big gains among the Cuban American electorate. This result suggested the polarized ethnically-based politics of the past may be breaking down, said Julia Sweig of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations in a recent article in The National Interest.

"Having won nearly half of the Cuban American vote in Florida in 2012, a gain of 15 percentage points over 2008, Obama can move quickly on Cuba. If he were to do so, he would find a cautious but willing partner in Raúl Castro, who needs rapprochement with Washington to advance his own reform agenda," Sweig said.

Little wonder Republicans like Ros-Lehtinen are worried. If things go on like this, they could lose a large piece of their political raison d'etre.

There are other reasons for believing the time is right for Obama to end the Cuba stalemate. The recent death of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's influential president, has robbed Havana of a strong supporter, both political and financial.

Chavez was not interested in a rapprochement with the U.S., either by Cuba or Venezuela. His revolutionary beliefs did not allow for an accommodation with the American "imperialists." His successors may not take so militant a line, especially given that Venezuela continues to trade heavily with the U.S., a privilege not allowed Cuba.

The so-called "pink tide" that has brought several left-wing leaders to power in Latin America in the past decade is not exactly on the ebb, but the hostility countries such as Brazil, Ecuador and Bolivia felt towards the Bush administration has abated. In fact, according to Sweig's article, U.S. business with Latin America as a whole is booming, up 20% in 2011. The U.S. imports more crude oil from Venezuela and Mexico than from the Persian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia. The U.S. does three times more business with Latin America than with China.

The stand-off over Cuba is an obstacle to advancing U.S. interests and business in Latin American countries, and vice versa. The continuation of the embargo has left the U.S. almost totally isolated at the United Nations, and at sharp odds with its major allies, including Britain and the EU.

But more importantly, the continued ostracism of Cuba's people -- for they, not the Havana government, are the biggest losers -- is unfair, unkind and unnecessary. If the U.S. wants full democracy in Cuba, then it should open up fully to ordinary Cubans. Tear down the artificial walls that separate the people of the two countries and, as Mao Zedong once said, let a hundred flowers bloom.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Simon Tisdall

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