President Barack Obama struck a deal with Cuban Prime Minister Raul Castro to restore diplomacy once again between the United States and Cuba on Dec. 17 after 53 years of hostility.
After a year of secret talks in Canada and the Vatican, ending with an hour-long talk between Obama and Castro, the leaders agreed on a prisoner swap. The Cuban government released two people, a subcontractor who was imprisoned for five years and an unnamed intelligence asset believed to be Rolando Trujillo, a spy working for the Central Intelligence Agency, who was imprisoned for 20 years.
In return, the U.S. released the final three members of a spy ring known as the Cuban Five who were convicted in 2001 for espionage charges, or attempting to provide information to an outside government, said The Washington Post.
“This is monumental. It has come at a time when Cuba has been engaged in very widespread, serious debate within the Cuban Communist Party… talking about what’s good about their system, what’s wrong with their system and what the recommendations are,” James Early, director of cultural studies and communications at the Center for Folklife Program at the Smithsonian Institute, said in an interview with The Real News.
President Obama recently signed an executive order allowing travel between the countries and easing some economic sanctions, all in exchange for 53 more prisoners considered political dissidents.
Congress is working with a bipartisan group of Republicans and Democrats co-sponsoring the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, which would formally end travel restrictions to U.S. citizens and Cuban legal residents as well as allow transactions associated with travel between the two countries.
U.S. and Cuban relations ended in 1961 after the Bay of Pigs invasion, a failed attempt backed by the CIA to overthrow Cuban government. This led to a secret agreement between the Soviet Union and Cuba to build missile bases on the island.
Ending the embargo also means the increase in quality of life for all Cubans. Access to food, medicine and other basic necessities has been an issue for many years, said Sujatha Fernandes, associate professor at Queens College and CUNY Graduate Center and author of many books such as “Cuba Represent!”
“The U.S. also prevents other countries such as India from trading with Cuba, so getting rid of the embargo will really make a difference,” Fernandes said.
Americans want to improve relations with Cuba as 45 percent agreed for full diplomacy between the countries while only 15 percent opposed it, according to an Associated Press-GFK poll.
“I think that there will be a lot of pushback from Congress particularly from Republicans like Marco Rubio who have clearly expressed their opposition to the executive order. But if the Republicans keep in mind the changing views of their constituencies and their election prospects in 2016, I think that they might be willing to negotiate on this,” Fernandes said.
Republican lawmakers are against Obama’s executive actions. The House of Representatives sub-committee on global human rights held a hearing on Dec. 5 of three different advocates for Cuban human rights, explaining Cuba’s silencing and imprisonment of those against the government.
“It is important to understand the murderous regime in Cuba that the administration wants to establish relations with,” said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-FL, and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee told the Sun-Sentinel.
Despite human rights violations in Cuba, the controversial Guantanamo Bay prison, a U.S. Marine base where foreign detainees are placed a human rights spotlight on the U.S., after a report revealed inhumane CIA torture techniques used to interrogate prisoners, according to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
“It is the U.S. who needs to seriously improve its own humanitarian position with torture in Guantanamo, police brutality against African-Americans, and many other issues,” Fernandes said. “They should focus on their own human rights abuses and leave Cuba to sort out its own problems.”