Their View: Breaking the ice with Cuba

The following editorial appeared in The New York Times.

A couple of years after America’s attempted overthrow of Cuba in 1961, the disastrous intervention known as the Bay of Pigs invasion, an envoy President John F. Kennedy secretly dispatched to Havana posed an odd question to the Cuban leader, Fidel Castro.

“Do you know how porcupines make love?” James Donovan asked, to make a point about how hard it would be to establish a trustful relationship between Washington and Havana. “Very carefully.”

More than half a century later, as U.S. and Cuban officials faced each other last week for historic talks to begin normalizing relations, it was evident that trust remains in short supply. But this first step in the present détente bodes well for a process that will require patience and deft managing of expectations in both countries.

Having been indoctrinated for decades to view the U.S. government with suspicion and resentment, Cubans across the island were mesmerized by a week that was as remarkable for some of the things that happened as it was for those that did not.

A senior Cuban diplomat, Josefina Vidal, substantively answered questions about the thaw from international and Cuban journalists during a televised news conference, a rare sight in a country where official statements are typically oblique and issued in writing. Remarks to the press by Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, were also televised and covered by Cuba’s state media without the usual condemnatory tone reserved for U.S. policy.

The two women agreed to disagree on a lot, including what role Washington could play to promote greater freedoms in the authoritarian nation. But breaking with a tradition of charged rhetoric on both sides, Vidal and Jacobson treated each other civilly.

What was arguably most striking about the momentous week in Havana was that neither of the Castro brothers was seen or heard from. But this week, Fidel Castro broke his silence about the new era with the United States, making a brief mention of the talks at the end of a lengthy letter published Monday by the Communist Party newspaper, Granma.

“I don’t trust American policies,” Castro wrote, adding that he nonetheless supported negotiations about the countries’ differences through diplomacy. “We will always defend cooperation and friendship with all nations on earth, among them our political adversaries.”

President Raul Castro, meanwhile, said Wednesday that the road to normalization will be long, as he listed a lengthy set of grievances, including the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo Bay and the sanctions against the island.

“We were able to advance in this recent negotiation because we treated each other with respect, as equals,” he said.

With plenty of people in both countries skeptical about the merits of a thaw, Cuban and U.S. officials will need to be pragmatic and patient as they begin to untangle a toxic relationship laden with five decades of acrimony, resentment and mistrust. Given the enthusiasm and expectation the new era has sparked among ordinary Cubans and Americans alike, allowing the détente to collapse would be a loss for both sides.