In Cuba, times are a-changin’

Workers raise a flagpole at the Cuban Interest Section in Washington in preparation for re-opening of embassies.
Workers raise a flagpole at the Cuban Interest Section in Washington in preparation for re-opening of embassies. AP

Last month witnessed the State Department’s list of foreign nations designated as state sponsors of terrorism shrink by 25 percent.

Since March 1982, Cuba has been on that list, which currently also includes Iran, Syria and Sudan. (Not North Korea? But I digress.) But on May 29, the State Department removed Cuba from that list of unsavory nations, following the 45-day waiting period on a delisting directive from President Obama.

Cuban President Raul Castro said removal from the blacklist was a precondition for this thaw in the 55-year Cold War between Washington and Havana, dating back to his brother Fidel’s communist revolution. He insisted May 12 that the terrorism-sponsor designation was an “unjust accusation,” but it dates back to Havana’s support in the 1970s and 1980s for FARC terrorists in Colombia and for revolutionary movements throughout Africa. With the end of Soviet economic subsidies worth between $4 billion and $6 billion a year after the 1991 collapse of the U.S.S.R., Havana was forced, out of economic necessity, to curtail its terrorist adventurism.

With the delisting comes the lifting of a variety of economic and diplomatic sanctions, including restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance and trade, but the next high-profile step in restoring formal diplomatic relations is likely to be the naming of ambassadors. Castro said May 12 that his country stood ready to name an envoy to Washington, and Secretary of State John F. Kerry could travel to Havana as early as next month to hoist the American flag over the U.S. diplomatic compound there. The 1950s-era building has served as the U.S. Interests Section since 1977.

In response to questions about Castro’s remarks about naming an envoy, presidential press secretary Josh Earnest said he didn’t know who might be on Obama’s list of candidates to be the first U.S. ambassador to Havana since Washington severed relations more than five decades ago. Presumably, though, the current chief of mission in Cuba at the Interests Section, Jeffrey De Laurentis, would be at or near the top of that list.

In 2012 and again this year, the Council of American Ambassadors, of which I am a member, traveled to Cuba as part of efforts to improve relations with our neighbor to the south. In both instances, we came away encouraged by what we saw in terms of long-overdue economic perestroika being put in place by Raul Castro, who took over from his ailing brother Fidel in 2008. (Raul is widely seen as being less rigidly doctrinaire and more pragmatic than Fidel.)

By way of examples, under Raul Castro, housing – previously all owned by, and rented from, the government – can now be owned by the Cuban people. Where before there was no pride of ownership, and it showed in the run-down condition of the housing stock, now renovations are underway. In similar fashion, farmers were previously told what to grow and how much to produce, but not allowed to profit from their labor, so they only produced what was required. Now, they’re allowed to sell any surplus food they produce, so they have an economic incentive to do so.

Until relatively recently, Cubans weren’t allowed to sell cars to one another. Restrictions on private-business ownership have been loosened, and more than 500,000 people are now employed in the private sector. “Within two years, private enterprise will make up [one-third] of the Cuban economy,” said one member of the Cuban National Assembly.

Eventually, a democracy?

By U.S. standards, of course, these are modest reforms, but for most Cubans, who have known no other leaders than ones named Castro, they are a sea change, and U.S. policy should be to encourage them. Our ambassadors group met with members of the National Assembly who said they would propose constitutional amendments to move the country toward a democratic system of government between now and 2018.

That seems overly optimistic, and it remains to be seen how fast and far these reforms will go, but for the Cuban people, it must feel like coming out a half-century time warp. You knew something is indeed up, when Raul Castro met with Pope Francis on May 10 at the Vatican. The Cuban leader said he was so impressed with the pontiff that he’s considering returning to the Catholic Church’s fold. “When the pope goes to Cuba in September,” Castro, the head of an officially atheistic regime, said at a news conference, “I promise to go to all his Masses, and with satisfaction.”

That may not be a sign of the apocalypse, but as Bob Dylan might say, for the Cuban people, “The times they are a-changin.’”

Mark W. Erwin, a Charlotte businessman, was a U.S. ambassador under President Clinton. He will speak on the history and future of Cuba at the World Affairs Council of Charlotte’s annual meeting on Wednesday. For more information, visit