BELIEVE me or not, I saw it coming. But I never saw it coming for Christmas.
Like everyone else, I had great hopes that the first Black Man in the White House would have left more than just his skin colour or his Muslim name in the Oval Office or in US history. I wasn’t sure how or what he would do, when and where. But I didn’t fall victim of the instant optimism of immediate expectations of people of African descent worldwide that came with his election in November 2006 and his move to the White House in January 2007. However, I always had that measured hope that by the time his two terms ended, Barack Obama would have left a few of his fingerprints next to Uncle Sam’s.
Since taking office six years ago, Obama has done everything right to stay ahead of the game on Capitol Hill and the American Street. He pulled US troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan and supervised the vengeful killing of Osama bin Laden for his role in 9/11 — live and direct. He did a little bit of everything to reach everybody needing social care. He’s continued to champion his Obama Care project to take healthcare to 43 million uninsured Americans – and that despite the continuous Republican railroading.
At the beginning of the end of his second term some time ago, I wrote that Obama will most likely use his last two years to deliver on some of his major promises held back by the Republican filibusters on Capitol Hill – especially Obama Care. He was forced to backtrack on his early promise and attempt to close down the Guantanamo prison in Cuba. But he’s also successfully railroaded his Immigration Bill over the heads of those in its path, even as the Democrats lost even more control on Capitol Hill.
The early move to normalize relations with Cuba announced this week was largely unexpected. But there were signs — since the Clinton presidency — that the Democratic White House was prepared to consider raising the dark curtain over Cuba.
Early signs of changing times came when Attorney General Janet Reno stood up to and defied the anti-Castro Cuban exiles and their Republican backers in Florida, over the return of Elian Gonzales to his homeland after his mother died trying to get to America by boat. Following that incident, Reno left office and Clinton was forced to tone down his rhetoric. But President Clinton and President Fidel Castro did meet (before their respective exits from power) in a carefully coordinated accidental exchange in the privacy of an elevator while attending a meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York.
Soon after Clinton left office (as if to make a point) he lit a Cuban cigar in a ‘no smoking’ zone London’s Heathrow Airport VIP Lounge, in full view of the gathered press. He didn’t get to return to the White House as America’s first ‘First Man’, Obama trouncing his wife to win the Democratic candidacy to replace him as President. But Clinton would have had some undocumented but certain influence on White House foreign policy while his wife served as Obama’s first Secretary of State.
Like Clinton, Obama also sent early signs and signals. He and President Raul Castro shook hands – in the eyes of the cameras – while Obama was greeting fellow world leaders attending Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa just over a year ago. Panama has now invited both Presidents Castro and Obama to the next Summit of the Americas in April 2015 in Panama City, when they’ll again sit at the same table, but this time without the distance and restrictions imposed to keep Cuban and American Presidents out of the same room as much as possible for the past 52 years.
I suspect Obama moved early on the Cuba reconciliation path to send a clear message to the Republicans that never mind their numbers on Capitol Hill, he has the testicular fortitude to exercise his Executive Authority when and where necessary in the last two years of his final term. Needing Congress to vote for a lifting of the US Embargo, Obama has opted instead to put the item on the agenda early enough. He may or may not succeed in getting the Republicans to support easing – far less lifting — the senseless and punitive embargo and related sanctions. But Obama has certainly carved his name in bold letters into US presidential history by doing what no other predecessor has even considered doing for more than five decades.
The Cubans naturally wish the US Embargo was also lifted on Wednesday and President Castro has even told Obama how he can reduce its punishing effect on millions of Cubans deprived of medical equipment and needed daily supplies, simply because countries and companies the world over are forbidden by Uncle Sam from using US dollars to do business with Cuba.
Obama has obviously decided to offer Cuba the lower-hanging fruits while holding back on the prized one at the very top. We can only hope that Presidents Obama and Castro, with Pope Francis’ prayers and blessings and the backing of the rest of the world, will be able to pick that elusive fruit together before Obama changes address from 16 Pennsylvania Avenue.
But in the meantime, Cubans will certainly get a better taste from the lower hanging fruit, considering that neither neighbour has ever been below the forbidden tree in all of five long decades.