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Vanderbilt expert: U.S. normalization of relations with Cuba ‘hugely important, long overdue’

by Dec. 18, 2014, 11:43 AM

Silhouettes of People Holding Flag of Cuba
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The normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States, which took a giant step forward Dec. 17 with announcements from Cuban leader Raul Castro and President Obama, is the smartest policy available to Obama and will benefit both nations, says a Vanderbilt historian who has visited Cuba many times.

“This breakthrough in United States-Cuban relations is hugely important and long overdue,” said Jane Landers, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of History at Vanderbilt. “The adversarial relationship was a remnant of the Cold War that made no sense when we dealt with countries like China and Russia.

“Full relations and the release of prisoners is a good first step, a wonderful way to start. Next, the trade embargo has to go.”

Cuba released American Alan Gross and announced a deal to swap three jailed Cubans in the United States for a U.S. intelligence asset held in Cuba. Gross was held for five years after being detained for his work setting up Internet service in Cuba as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Cuba considered the USAID effort an attempt to undermine its government.

Obama also announced plans to re-open the U.S. Embassy in Havana and initiate steps to ease restrictions on travel and commerce within the next several weeks and months.

The United States’ embargo of Cuba is “useless and counterproductive,” said Landers, who has been conducting research there since Cuba was a Soviet dependency. “The embargo creates hardship for the most vulnerable Cubans and gave Fidel – and then Raul – propaganda with which to rally loyalty to a weakened and some would say failed state.

“The embargo only serves the purposes of conservative Cuban American groups who benefited from earlier administrations and it led to dangerous and failed schemes against the Castro regime,” Landers said.

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Jane Landers (Steve Green / Vanderbilt)

Cuban people are generally warm towards individual Americans, Landers says.

“They like much of American culture, like baseball and music,” she said. “But no one can blame them for opposing the embargo and other U.S. policy misadventures.”

Since 1995, Landers has been running digital preservation projects in Cuba to preserve the oldest and endangered records on slavery there. These records date back to the 16th century. For more information, see the Ecclesiastical & Secular Sources for Slave Societies website.

Landers is the author of Atlantic Creoles in the Age of Revolutions, which was awarded the Rembert Patrick Book Award and honorary mention for the Conference on Latin American History’s 2011 Bolton Johnson Prize for the best English-language book on any aspect of Latin American History. Her first monograph Black Society in Spanish Florida was awarded the Frances B. Simkins Prize for Distinguished First Book in Southern History and was a CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title. Both books incorporate research on colonial Cuba. She co-authored the college textbook, The Atlantic World: A History, 1400-1888.

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