The Week That Changed the World: Nixon in China and Obama in Cuba

In the final week of February 1972, President Richard Nixon made a visit to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) of Chairman Mao Zedong. It was the culmination of intense and secretive diplomatic manoeuvres – largely carried out by Henry Kissinger and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai – intended to normalise relations between these two ideological enemies.

A handshake that changed history Source: The Times
A handshake that changed history
Source: The Times

Prior to Nixon’s visit, the US had recognised the Republic of China (ROC), based on the island of Taiwan, as the legitimate representative of the Chinese people. Since Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Kuomintang had lost the Chinese Civil War to Mao’s communists and fled across the Taiwan Strait in 1949, Beijing had been discarded from the American diplomatic radar.

Twenty-two years of frozen relations came to an end, leading Nixon to describe the visit as the ‘week that changed the world’. Hyperbolic certainly but the normalisation of US-PRC relations was a momentous development in world history. The Soviet Union, from whose sphere of influence Mao had broken, became further weakened in the global balance of power; the stage was set for Chinese economic expansion under Deng Xiaoping; the prospects of a military solution to the ‘Taiwan Issue’ decreased; and cultural exchanges commenced.

Now, after more than half-a-century of outright enmity, the US and Cuba are set to restore normal ties. Ever since Fidel Castro’s communist guerrillas overthrew the pro-US government of Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Cuba has been seen as a pariah state, even one that sponsors terrorism.

Castro rides victorious into Havana after the Cuban Revolution Source: Born Bicultural USA
Castro rides victorious into Havana after the Cuban Revolution
Source: Born Bicultural USA

The bungled Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961 encouraged Castro to strengthen ties with the Soviet Union during a tense period of the Cold War. This precipitated the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when the world moved to the brink of nuclear war. For its part, the US continued to try and undermine the regimes of Cuba’s allies in Latin America, whilst the CIA made numerous attempts to assassinate Castro.

Over the past few decades, millions of Cubans have fled the Castro regime for the US, where they now make up a sizable minority in Florida and other south-eastern states. Despite the decline in importance of the Caribbean island in recent years – particularly since the end of the Cold War and the subsequent economic decline that has provoked – it remains an issue of contention both inside Congress and across the wider public.

Whilst the normalisation of US-Cuban relations is not as significant as the PRC thaw in political, economic or military terms, symbolically it is a major development. Despite the largely uncompromising nature of Field or his successor – brother Raul – the Obama administration has overlooked ideological differences in an attempt to improve the lives of those living in Cuba and the expatriates on the US mainland.

Simultaneously, it sends a statement that the US is ready to re-engage positively with Latin America, a region it has neglected in recent years to the advantage of China and other foreign powers. Reaching out to Cuba could lead to similar developments in other wayward and hostile states such as Venezuela, whose people are also suffering greatly.

Thousands of Cubans, repressed by the Castro regime, have made the precarious journey to Florida Source: Reuters
Thousands of Cubans, repressed by the Castro regime, have made the precarious journey to Florida
Source: Reuters

Although it is tempting to see this development as the forerunner to an open, free and democratic Cuba, much will depend on the political succession in Havana. Fidel and Raul are coming to the end; whoever succeeds them will have to choose whether to embrace the opportunities being offered by Washington or to continue the ‘revolution’ of 1959.

It should not be underestimated what a diplomatic coup this is. Nobody would have thought even a few years ago that Cuba and the US would be on speaking terms while Fidel still breathed. It may not prove to be an event that changed the world but for the Cuban people in particular it is an unprecedented opportunity to finally join the world order in the 21st century.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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