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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The Island of Defection: the great story of Cuban emigration to America

Orlando Ortega, a Cuban athletic hurdler, recently fled his teammates in Spain and defected from his homeland, claiming that his only hope was emigration to Florida and a reunion with his mother.

This comes shortly before a team of domestic Cuban baseball legends embark on a tour of America where they are set to face the countrymen who illegally ditched their country for a shot at fame and fortune in the MLB.

Cuban baseball players have always sought fame in the MLB. The ability of the communist government to prevent their defection has fluctuated
Cuban baseball players have always sought fame in the MLB. The ability of the communist government to prevent their defection has fluctuated

Cuban sportsmen have a history of defection in recent decades. Bound by an amateur system, rigorously monitored and marshalled abroad, used for propaganda purposes whilst receiving a pitiful salary at home, the lure of the American Dream is too great for many. Defection means illegal flight from the homeland and the potential ramifications this may entail for family members left behind.

After the 1959 revolution and Fidel Castro’s communist takeover, defections from Cuba to Florida (a mere 90 miles) skyrocketed. Many of these people were staunch Batistas and anti-communists either intent on escaping a life of persecution or determined to form a militia on the American mainland that could ultimately retake Cuba.

However to suggest that covert emigration from Cuba is a fairly recent phenomenon is misleading. The island’s proximity to the American mainland and the often harsh and debilitating working and living conditions for its citizens have ensured this is not so.

In the early twentieth century, when emigration to America from across the globe was rife, Cubans flocked to Miami in their thousands. Escaping plantation life or the poorly paid manufacturies on the island, they sought to establish indigenous industries in the USA such as cigar making and textile works.

Many Cubans in the early 20th century were poor sharecroppers downtrodden by the Spanish elite
Many Cubans in the early 20th century were poor sharecroppers downtrodden by the Spanish elite (Source: Galvan)

During the 19th century, Cuban nationalists fled to America to escape Spanish colonial rule, establishing a base for operations in the democratic heartland from which the independence movement was driven.

Prior to this, in the 17th and 18th centuries, both mestizos and black slaves fleeing a life of poverty and imprisonment on Cuban sugar plantations made for Texas and Louisiana which were Spanish possessions at the time. Their lives rarely entailed the dramatic improvement they had wished for, yet the desperation to escape led them into making long and treacherous journeys into the unknown.

All of these defections, unsanctioned population movements diverging wildly in size, have had significant impacts on Cuba itself and the final destination of settlement. There are nearly 2 million Cuban Americans who have made important cultural, economic and sporting contributions to their country. Others have simultaneously turned to lives of crime, helping to decrease internal security whilst leading to inter-ethnic tensions in certain parts of the country.

Perhaps the most important emigration from Cuba to America, however, was no defection. In 1565, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, Captain General of the Spanish Treasure Fleet, set out for Florida on a mission of exploration and colonization.

Abandoning a life of luxury on Cuba – the special preserve of all Spanish colonial officials at the time – Aviles destroyed the French Huguenot settlement of Fort Caroline on the Florida coast, slaughtered the majority of its inhabitants and founded Saint Augustine, the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the USA.

The establishment of the oldest American city was dependent on a ruthless massacre ordered by a Spaniard
The establishment of the oldest American city was dependent on a ruthless massacre ordered by a Spaniard

A first permanent bastion for Christianity in the USA, Aviles could not have been aware of the legacy he created by abandoning a life of ease in search of further glory.

It is ironic that for most Cuban defectors, escaping a world of unending poverty and limited opportunities, their contributions to American society are seldom recognised. But that is not to say that they have not stood the test of time.