Lake Chad Today–A Template for Tomorrow’s Conflicts And For Tomorrow’s Solutions.

               by David Parmer / Tokyo

A Model For Future Conflicts and Their Solution?

Central Africa’s Sahel region between the Sahara Desert and equatorial Africa might just hold the model for world conflicts in the second quarter of the 21st century and beyond. The geopolitical situation around Lake Chad with its environmental and social problems could very well be the first in a series of eviro-conflicts that beg for a simple solution, but are in fact a complex interweave of factors.

Causes of the Problem I: Water Use and Climate Change

Four countries border Lake Chad; Niger, Chad, Cameroon and Nigeria, but another four use the lake water. These include Algeria, Central African Republic, Libya, and Sudan. Lake Chad has, however, shrunk significantly since the 1970s. It has gone from an area of 20,000 KM2to an area of 2, 000 KM2  this been attributed to global warming or climate change and also to an increasing demand for water. Add to this an increase in population and the displacement of populations (up to 2.3 million people) due to the ongoing insurgency lead by Boko Haram, and the plot begins to thicken. A decrease in water has also created friction between herders and farmers, both stakeholders in the water use debate.

 Causes of the Problem II: Boko Haram Islamist Insurgency

 Since 2009 Boko Haram, a militant fundamentalist group, has been on the offensive in an attempt to establish an Islamist state in central Africa. Boko Haram has been designated as a terrorist group by Britain, the United States, New Zealand, and the United Nations. Forces from Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria have been working together for 8 years in an attempt to defeat Boko Haram. In one recent high-profile operation Boko Haram kidnapped 100 schoolgirls from a technical college in Dapachi bringing worldwide attention and concern to the problem. Many say there is no military solution to this insurgency, and therefore a political settlement is in order. Owing to the extreme positions of the organization and its promotion of strict Sharia law, it is no wonder that a solution has not been reached. Moreover, it is doubtful that a solution acceptable to all parties will ever be reached.

Solutions to the Problem I

 In September 2019 Nigeria, Niger and Chad agreed on a joint trans-border agro-ecosystem program designed to restore livelihoods and to restore the lake. The parties agreed on the occasion of a joint meeting in New Delhi dealing with desertification.

Solutions to the Problem II

One grand scheme to save the lake is the Transaqua Project that has gained financial commitment from both China and Italy. PowerChina has pledged a $1.8 million investment while Italy’s Bonifica has pledged $2.5 million. The project calls for the refilling of Lake Chad by bringing water from the River Congo in the Democratic Republic of Congo through a navigable canal 2400KM long to the Chari River and then to Lake Chad. Additional benefits of the project (in addition to saving the lake) would be water for agriculture, hydroelectric power for the region and rail and road transportation along the canal. This scheme was proposed decades ago but has now been dusted off and is gaining traction in the 21st century.

Solutions to the Problem III

Another plan calls for water to be pumped up from the Ubangi River over the mountains to the Chari River using solar power. The group behind this scheme is called The Solar Option. Benefits of The Solar Option include the fact that the equipment would come on line rapidly as opposed to the long timeline for the Transaqua project. Also the Solar Option requires no dams, and costs a projected 10% of the cost of the Transaqua.

Solutions to the Problem IV

To add further nuance to the problem/solution matrix of the Lake Chad situation we only have to consult a new report, building on the work of a previous G7 report, which is entitled Shoring up Stability, Addressing Climate and Fragility Risks in the Lake Chad Region. The findings of the report suggest that the popular belief that Lake Chad is continuing to shrink is not correct. The fluctuations in the water level are normal and ground water is stable while surface water has shrunk. The key finding of the report is that it is conflict and not climate change that is to blame in the Lake Chad situation. A number of social issues are what is fueling the problem not just the climate change factor, which is indeed important but not key when compared to the social and political causes of the situation.

Conclusion

 The problems and solutions relating to the ecological and social impacts on the Lake Chad region are varied. No single, simple solution will bring relief to the lake, to the region and to the displaced people who live there. A clear vision of the problem, and cooperation among stakeholders will be the only way forward in saving this wonderful lake and in saving the livelihoods of the people who inhabit this region and this vitally important part of Africa.

Photo: Lake Chad, Cameroon and Sahara from ISS. NASA via flickr

Photo: Lake Chad basin crisis via flickr

Hong Kong, Summer 2019 – A Thorny Problem for Beijing.

Hong Kong in the summer of 2019 really is a thorny problem for Beijing. All things considered, it looks like there is no “win” for Beijing, only a “not lose.”

                              A “Perfect Storm”

A perfect storm of conditions is coming together to make an almost impossible situation in which the Chinese government cannot get a positive outcome. The Hong Kong government has been tasked with dealing with the massive demonstrations opposing the now-defunct extradition bill. The kidnapping of anti-Beijing booksellers in the not-so-distant past gave demonstrators just the ammunition they needed for their protest, as it proved to them that the true purpose of the bill was not to extradite criminals to face justice, but to smother dissent in Hong Kong.

This has been a near impossible situation to deal with for the government of the SAR considering that university students are on holiday and out in full force, and that the world is watching via international media. While there were accusations of excessive force, the demonstrators did enter and vandalize the Legislative Council Building despite police presence.

As of mid-July 2019, protests continue. The second round of protests have been against mainland traders who buy up huge amounts of goods in Hong Kong for resale on the mainland which drives up inflation in Hong Kong. Police and protesters scuffled at a shopping mall and injuries were reported.

Demands from the protesters, in addition to the permanent scrapping of the extradition bill, now include an investigation into police brutality and the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

                                   The Use of Minimal Force

At present, it appears that Bejing’s decision is to continue to let the Hong Kong government handle the situation. The use of excessive force by the SAR or the Beijing government would damage the “soft power” that the PRC has been developing for decades culminating in the “Belt and Road” initiative.

The specter of the CCP’s handling of the 1989 Tian An Men Square incident also hangs over the Chinese government. Moreover, those “on the fence” in Taiwan regarding re-unification might be pushed to the pro-independence side if they were to see the PRC clamp down.

And the “no win” situation is just not for the government of the PRC.The protesters who are acting in such a way to preserve the freedom of Hong Kong under the One Country-Two Systems arrangement might just be putting an end to it. 

                               Beijing’s Red Line

China’s long-term strategy is not yet clear. In the short term, the strategy is not to use excessive force. However there is a point where protest becomes anarchy. If anarchy were to ensue, then the PLA would be called in to maintain order. Once order had been restored, those “freedoms” that the protesters were fighting so hard to preserve might be lost forever.

No one knows where the red line is with the powers in Beijing and we are not privy to the thinking of the CCP. But be sure, there is a red line. When the passions of the protesters are aroused, it is unlikely that long-term thinking will prevail, and it is highly likely that anarchy will ensue. When anarchy does ensue, the CCP and PLA will act, and act decisively.

The above outcomes are not good for Hong Kong, and ultimately not good for China. But history has a way of being history, and in Hong Kong and other places around the world we can see history unfold from the comfort of our own homes on big-screen TVs.

What do you think about this matter? Please let us know.

photo: Etan Liam via flickr

 

Speaking Truth To Power – Lessons From China’s Grand Historian

                    by David Parmer/Tokyo

In the long saga of China’s history, filled as it is with remarkable men and women, sages and saints, tyrants and villains, it is difficult to find a more respected and admired figure than the Grand Historian Siam Qian.

Siam Qian (145-86 BC) was the son of Sima Tan a minor court official and astrologer during the Han dynasty. As a young man Sima displayed a talent for scholarship and after a grand tour of China he settled in to serve the court of the emperor Wu and to eventually become court astrologer himself. In addition to his court duties, he continued to research and write the history (Shiji) that his late father had begun.

In 99BC his life changed forever. A general named Li Ling was sent to the frontier to defeat the barbarians, and he himself was defeated and captured. Emperor Wu blamed Li Ling and the court agreed. There was, however, one dissenting voice, that of Sima Qian the court astrologer. He spoke up for Li Ling. The emperor took this as an offense against himself and his family and sentenced Sima Qian to death. This sentence could be commuted if the offending party paid enough money, and if they were destitute, then they were to be castrated.

Sima Qian was thrown into prison and suffered greatly. Eventually he chose castration because he had not sufficient money to buy his way out. He chose this most ignoble punishment because he had promised his father to finish the great history, and moreover he felt it his duty to record China’s great past.

Centuries later we can still read of (and feel) his tremendous humiliation and shame, and yet he bore the unbearable and produced what is considered one of the greatest works of Chinese literature, The Records of the Grand Historian.

Two thousand or so years later, on June 12, 2017, in a city called Washington, at the residence of the President of the United States, a meeting of the cabinet of a man named Trump was held. The meeting began with the man praising himself and comparing himself to one of the country’s great presidents. He then asked each member of his cabinet (court) to speak. And speak they did, shamelessly praising him again and again. Trump appeared to enjoy the praise and seemingly could not get enough of it. Many of his cabinet said what an honor it was to serve him. One even went so far as to declare:

“On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and the blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people.”

 Many of Trump’s appointees looked uncomfortable, if not downright embarrassed. And yet. Not one of them got up and walked out of the room. Not one of them said, “Enough!”

At first we might take their lack of action as cowardice and moral weakness. At first we may want to point the finger and say, “Shame on you!”

“Shame on you who have led armies into battle and headed corporations. Shame on you who have done great things and lived honorable lives and contributed to our society. Shame on you!”

And yet. Maybe some of those men and women, just some of them, decided (like the Grand Historian himself) to bear the unbearable for a greater good. Maybe those honorable men and women at that table bore the shame for they knew that were it not for them and their influence, more terrible things would happen. And they knew that should they walk out, they would very well be replaced by others even more willing say what the emperor wanted to hear and to do his bidding without question.

On June 12, 2017, did the good men and women in that room bear the unbearable for a greater good and higher purpose?

Your thoughts?

Photo: Grand Historian Mildchina

 

EU’s Jean Claude Junker on Brexit

                   “The European Dream Still Exists”

On June 23 the British people voted in a referendum to leave the European Union. It was close: Leave 52%, Remain 48%.

The world has seen the result: financial turmoil and political uncertainty. It appears that the Leave group had no “Plan B” for their eventual win; in fact it appears that they did not even have a “plan A.”

Media attention has focused on financial turbulence and British domestic politics. But what about the Europeans, what do they think?

A good indication can be gathered from the speech of the President of the European Commission, Mr. Jean Claude Juncker, to the European Parliament on June 28th. President Juncker focused on these key points:

  • There will be not secret negotiations with the British
  • Britain has voted, and Britain must act on that vote
  • The EU will continue to move ahead despite its diminished status

Here is the full text of Mr. Juncker’s speech. It gives us a good indication about European intentions, and shows us how a statesman thinks as opposed to a mere politician.

Mr. Juncker’s speech in full (Reading Time: 7 minutes)

 

 

Photo: European Parliament via flickr

Voices From The Graveyard of Empires

                       by David Parmer

Afghanistan has been called the graveyard of empires because foreign powers from Alexander the Great to the British and the Russians, and now the Americans, have seen money, power and blood drained away in its sandy soil.

What makes it attractive to great powers is its key position in central Asia, an ideal base from which to influence the region. What makes it impossible to manage is a tribal society that has its own timeless agenda that has been unhurried and unchanged for centuries.

Is intervention in tribal and religious warfare possible? Yes. Is it necessary? Is it profitable or advantageous to the intervening parties? It seems only history has the answers to those questions.

The former Soviet Union had boots on the ground in Afghanistan from December 1979 to February 1989. It sustained an estimated 14,000 casualties during that time. The cost was between 1–3 billion rubles per year.

And what were the Soviets thinking? In excerpts from a Politbureau session on January 21, 1987, published by the National Security Archive, we can get a good idea. Many of the attendees are well know to us; Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze and Head of the Central Committee International Department Anatoly Dobrynin, and Politbureau member Mikhail Gorbachev.

During the discussion, some members try to find any bit of good news, and attempt to put a positive spin on things. However, it is abundantly clear that the Soviet policy in Afghanistan has failed. What is telling, and is perhaps the loudest voice from history, is Eduard Shevardnadze’s blunt admission of Soviet failure; it is sad, truthful and final.

“Very little is left of the friendly feelings toward the Soviet people, which existed for decades. Very many people have died, and not all of them were bandits. Not a single problem was solved in favor of the peasants. In essence, [we] waged war against the peasants. The state apparatus is functioning poorly. Our adviser assistance is ineffective. Najib was complaining about the petty patronizing on the part of our advisers.

I am not going to discuss now whether we did the right thing by going there. But it is a fact that we went there absolutely not knowing the psychology of the people, or the real situation in the country. [emphasis added] And everything that we were and are doing in Afghanistan is inconsistent with the moral face of our country.

The Soviets did retreat from Afghanistan in February 1989, and Mr. Shevardnadze was proved right in his assessment of the situation. And now in 2016 we again have a situation in Syria and Iraq that parallels the Soviet failure. Maybe the most important thing that Shevardnadze said in the meeting was this:

“But we need a political decision. Otherwise we will reap the fruits of a serious political and military defeat.”

_________________________________

The National Security Archive (The George Washington University) Politburo Session, January 21, 1987 Anatoly S. Chernyaev Notes:

Photo: Rusting Soviet T-62 Tank in Kandahar Afghanistan, Kenny Holston via flickr

Along the Silk Road to Uzbekistan

                            by David Parmer/Tokyo

Well if plastic tourism, where visitors move like sheep through phony destinations, is not your thing, and the existence of a yet another Starbucks Coffee shop causes you to see red, and you consider yourself a “traveler” and not a “tourist” then maybe your next trip should to the heart of the Silk Road in Uzbekistan. All reports suggest that Uzbekistan will not disappoint you.

Uzbek Map

 The country of 28 million people (60% rural) seems to have the same growing pains as its Central Asian neighbors in making its transition from Soviet-style society to 21st century democracy. The country faces problems such as human rights, economic stagnation and the question of presidential succession. Its government is described by many in the West as authoritarian.

Having said that, Uzbekistan, has a lot going for it, and like its neighbors has the prospect of a bright future. Natural resources include gas, coal oil and gold. Moreover, Uzbekistan is one of the largest cotton produces in the world. Potentially, the tourist industry could be its biggest long term money maker.The richness of its history and the beauty of the architecture in Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara and other cities are matched by few places on Earth.

tashkent_amir_temur_museum

Travel writers enthuse about Uzbekistan; can’t say enough great things. (see below) The biggest criticism seems to be about government bureaucracy, particularly in the area of entering and departing the country. The Uzbek people are described as warm and friendly, the climate welcoming and the scenery both natural and man-made, as breathtaking. So for your next, non-plastic vacation this might be just the place—and no Starbucks there. Yet.

The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/travel/2013/mar/01/uzbekistan-holiday-road-trip

CNN Travel:  http://travel.cnn.com/underrated-uzbekistan-428564/

Photo: (Top) Tashkent, Barak-Khan Madrassan/ welcome to uzbekistan.uz

Map: Wikitravel, Central Asia

Photo: (Bottom) Tashkent, Amir Temur Museum/ visit-uzbekistan.com

Where is Djibouti and What Do We Need To Know?

                             by David Parmer

Djibouti is a postage-stamp sized country on the Horn of Africa. Location seems to be the former French colony’s only gift from on high. But what a location! Djibouti sits smack between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea.The prime seafront location that informs it would make you think of Singapore, but seafront location is where the similarity ends. Djibouti is an arid country with few natural resources, little industry and 60% unemployment and has been linked to human trafficking. No regional banking and IT center here.

640px-Somali_map

                          The Horn of Africa (Map: Wikiwand)

In Djibouti they speak Arabic and French as you might surmise. The Population is 60% of Somali extraction and 35% Afar, and it is 94% Muslim, again no surprise. Its population (75%) is mainly urban, the rest being nomadic. Reports suggest that the country suffers from a water shortage, desertification and very little arable farmland.

Is there a bright spot here? Back to location. Djibouti has a service economy. It is a transshipment port handling its neighbors, imports and exports. It is also a fueling center where international shipping can obtain and store fuel.

And? There are military bases in Djibouti. France has a presence here and the U.S. has Camp Lemonnier, from which it reportedly flies drones over the troubled and very active region and keeps track of terrorists. France? OK. the US? OK. Anybody else?. Yes indeed. China.

On November 26, 2015 the Chinese Ministry of National Defense announced the setting up of a logistics facility in Djibouti to enable Chinese anti-piracy forces in the Gulf of Aden to refuel and replenish supplies. China calls this “support facilities,” but the Western press has been quick to call it China’s first oversees base. Of course China has diplomatic representation in the region, and commercial interests, but this is the first non-diplomatic PRC government facility (except UN operations) outside of China. A “base” for which China will pay $100 million for a ten year lease. The U.S. has reportedly paid $60 million for a similar but longer arrangement.

This facility will also enable China to provide some overwatch and rescue capabilities for its nationals and commercial interests as well as protect shipping.

Here the relevant part of the transcript (pertaining to the Djibouti facility) of the press conference held on November 26, 2015 at China’s Ministry of National Defense.The briefing officer is Colonel Wu Qian.

Q: It is learned that China will set up a logistics base in the African country of Djibouti. Can you confirm this and will it be China’s first military base overseas?

A: China and Djibouti enjoy traditional friendship. In recent years, friendly cooperative relations between the two countries have been constantly developing with pragmatic cooperation carried out in many areas. What needs to be pointed out is that maintaining regional peace and stability is in the interests of all countries and is also the common aspiration of the people of China and Djibouti and the world at large. China is willing and obliged to make more contributions in this regard.

Based on relevant UN resolutions, China has sent more than 60 naval ships in 21 batches to perform escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and waters off Somali coast. The Chinese naval escort ships have encountered a lot of difficulties such as personnel recuperation, and food and POL replenishment during performing escort missions. It is indeed necessary to have effective and near-the-site logistical support.

China and Djibouti are having discussions on setting up support facilities in Djibouti. Such facilities will ensure better support for the Chinese military in carrying out UN peacekeeping operations, escort missions in the Gulf of Aden and waters off the Somali coast, as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations. It will play a positive role for the Chinese military to effectively fulfill its international obligations and maintain international and regional peace and stability.

And finally, here is a link to the New York Times article on China’s first overseas “base.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/27/world/asia/china-military-presence-djibouti-africa.html?_r=0

 

 

Taiwan 2016: Election Results VS Results of the Election

                                   by David Parmer

As for the January 2016 Taiwan national elections, (presidential and legislative) what is interesting will not be the election results, but rather the results of the election. The election results seem pretty much a given: Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate Tsai Ing-wen will win by a comfortable majority. Kuomintang (KMT) party Chair Eric Chu will finish a respectable second (which is why he was brought in to replace Hung Hsiu-chu, who was headed into the black hole of ignominious defeat, dragging the KMT with her) and People First Party’s James Soong will get the crumbs. Those will be the election results and should come as no surprise to anyone. The big question is what will be the results of the election?

Presumptive winner Tsai has said in effect that she won’t rock the boat regarding cross-strait ties. And that is good news as far as Washington and Beijing are concerned. Perhaps there will be some social legislation and domestic restructuring. The China Post reported on September 6, 2015 that the Tsai proposes using defense spending budget to promote local industries, and that she argues the government should do more for infrastructure projects to promote employment. Specifically this would include upgrading IT, green technology and industries related to people’s daily lives. In foreign policy Tsai is said to focus on Taiwan’s traditional ties with the USA, and might become friendlier with Japan.

Three real questions remain however:

1) How will Beijing react to a DPP victory in the presidential and legislative elections? Will there be “business as usual” as there has been with the KMT, or will there be a cooling down and heating up of cross strait ties?

2) Once the DPP was won, they will become “the establishment.” How will the student movement deal with the new administration? Will the DPP get a pass from the younger generation, or will it have to prove itself by actions?

3) What does the shift toward a “Taiwan Identity” mean? Reports suggest that many people see their identity as Taiwanese and not Chinese. How will 3) affect 1) and 2) above?

Please log in and give us your thoughts on the Taiwan elections 2016.

 Photo: DPP Facebook Page

 

Taiwan Elections—The Candidate Who Was

                                by David Parmer

Well, it seems it’s a done deal: Taiwan’s KMT Candidate Hung Hsiu-chu is history. The party has asked her to step aside due to her poor showing in the ongoing race for president in the January 2016 elections against the DPP’s Tsai Ing-wen.

Hung reportedly was asked by KMT Chairman Eric Chu to step down but refused. The plan now seems to replace the fiery Hung with party chairman and New Taipei mayor Chu. The KMT might still face a loss in the January elections, but not the landslide that would occur if Hung remained as its presidential candidate. In a report published on October 9, Want China Times reported that the ruling KMT offered Hung an apology on October 8, admitting that she had been ill-treated, and called for a meeting with Hung to offer their formal apology.

The 2016 Taiwan elections are really important for a number of reasons, and most have to do with the island’s relations with and status regarding the People’s Republic just across the Taiwan Strait. In the past all parties have been willing to kick the can down the road regarding the status of Taiwan. This has been going on since the re-opening of ties between the U.S. and PRC. But now Mr. Xi Jinping, speaking for his government, has gone on record as saying that this can not go on forever.

As for the upcoming election, it seems that nobody will be completely satisfied—perhaps that is the nature of politics. The PRC will not stand for any hint of Taiwan Independence, and many on Taiwan feel the KMT is too friendly with the mainland to the detriment of the local people and local economy. So what is the answer? Maybe the least bad option: Eric Chu, the KMT and the status quo.

In just over 90 days we will have an answer to this question. Do you have anything to add to the discussion? Please let us know your thoughts.

Update: Want China Times reported on October 12, 2015 that Taiwan’s Koumintang Party will hold a special party congress in Taipei on October 17, 2015 to select a new candidate to replace Ms. Hung.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. Re-opens Havana Embassy

                        by David Parmer

The following are remarks made by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on August 14, 2015 in Havana, Cuba on the occasion of the re-opening of the U.S. Embassy after 54 years. (Text: U.S. Dept. of State)

SECRETARY KERRY: Please be seated, everybody. Thank you very, very much. Muchas gracias. Buenos dias. I’m so sorry that we are a little bit late today, but what a beautiful ride in and how wonderful to be here. And I thank you for leaving my future transportation out here in back of me. I love it. (Laughter.)

Distinguished members of the Cuban delegation – Josefina, thank you for your leadership and for all your work of your delegation; excellencies from the diplomatic corps; my colleagues from Washington, past and present; Ambassador DeLaurentis and all of the embassy staff; and friends watching around the world, thank you for joining us at this truly historic moment as we prepare to raise the United States flag here at our embassy in Havana, symbolizing the re-establishment of diplomatic relations after 54 years. This is also the first time that a United States Secretary of State has been to Cuba since 1945. (Applause.)

This morning I feel very much at home here, and I’m grateful to those who have come to share in this ceremony who are standing around outside of our facilities, and I feel at home here because this is truly a memorable occasion – a day for pushing aside old barriers and exploring new possibilities.

And it is in that spirit that I say on behalf of my country, Los Estados Unidos acogen con beneplacito este nuevo comienzo de su relacion con el pueblo y el Gobierno de Cuba. Sabemos que el camino hacia unas relaciones plenamente normales es largo, pero es precisamente por ello que tenemos que empezar en este mismo instante. No hay nada que temer, ya que seran muchos los beneficios de los que gozaremos cuando permitamos a nuestros ciudadanos conocerse mejor, visitarse con mas frecuencia, realizar negocios de forma habitual, intercambiar ideas y aprender los unos de los otros.

My friends, we are gathered here today because our leaders – President Obama and President Castro – made a courageous decision to stop being the prisoners of history and to focus on the opportunities of today and tomorrow. This doesn’t mean that we should or will forget the past; how could we, after all? At least for my generation, the images are indelible.

In 1959, Fidel Castro came to the United States and was greeted by enthusiastic crowds. Returning the next year for the UN General Assembly, he was embraced by then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. In 1961, the Bay of Pigs tragedy unfolded with President Kennedy accepting responsibility. And in October 1962, the missile crisis arose – 13 days that pushed us to the very threshold of nuclear war. I was a student then, and I can still remember the taut faces of our leaders, the grim map showing the movement of opposing ships, the approaching deadline, and that peculiar word – quarantine. We were unsettled and uncertain about the future because we didn’t know when closing our eyes at night what we would find when we woke up.

In that frozen environment, diplomatic ties between Washington and this capital city were strained, then stretched thin, then severed. In late 1960, the U.S. ambassador left Havana. Early the following January, Cuba demanded a big cut in the size of our diplomatic mission, and President Eisenhower then decided he had no choice but to shut the embassy down.

Most of the U.S. staff departed quickly, but a few stayed behind to hand the keys over to our Swiss colleagues, who would serve diligently and honorably as our protecting power for more than 50 years. I just met with the Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, and we’re grateful to Switzerland always for their service and their help. (Applause.)

Among those remaining at the embassy were three Marine guards: Larry Morris, Mike East, and Jim Tracy. As they stepped outside, they were confronted by a large crowd standing between them and the flagpole. Tensions were high. No one felt safe. But the Marines had a mission to accomplish. And slowly, the crowd just parted in front of them as they made their way to the flagpole, lowered Old Glory, folded it, and returned to the building.

Larry, Mike, and Jim had done their jobs, but they also made a bold promise that one day they would return to Havana and raise the flag again. (Applause.)

At the time, no one could have imagined how distant that day would be.

For more than half a century, U.S.-Cuban relations have been suspended in the amber of Cold War politics. In the interim, a whole generation of Americans and Cubans have grown up and grown old. The United States has had ten new presidents. In a united Germany, the Berlin Wall is a fading memory. Freed from Soviet shackles, Central Europe is again home to thriving democracies.

And last week, I was in Hanoi to mark the 20th anniversary of normalization of relations between the United States and Vietnam. Think about that. A long and terrible war that inflicted indelible scars on body and mind, followed by two decades of mutual healing, followed by another two decades of diplomatic and commercial engagement. In this period, Vietnam evolved from a country torn apart by violence into a dynamic society with one of the world’s fastest growing economies. And all that time, through reconciliation, through normalization, Cuban-American relations remained locked in the past.

Meanwhile, new technologies enabled people everywhere to benefit from shared projects across vast stretches of ocean and land. My friends, it doesn’t take a GPS to realize that the road of mutual isolation and estrangement that the United States and Cuba were traveling was not the right one and that the time has come for us to move in a more promising direction.

In the United States, that means recognizing that U.S. policy is not the anvil on which Cuba’s future will be forged. Decades of good intentions aside, the policies of the past have not led to a democratic transition in Cuba. It would be equally unrealistic to expect normalizing relations to have, in a short term, a transformational impact. After all, Cuba’s future is for Cubans to shape. Responsibility for the nature and quality of governance and accountability rests, as it should, not with any outside entity; but solely within the citizens of this country.

But the leaders in Havana – and the Cuban people – should also know that the United States will always remain a champion of democratic principles and reforms. Like many other governments in and outside this hemisphere, we will continue to urge the Cuban Government to fulfill its obligations under the UN and inter-American human rights covenants – obligations shared by the United States and every other country in the Americas.

And indeed, we remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas, practice their faith; where the commitment to economic and social justice is realized more fully; where institutions are answerable to those they serve; and where civil society is independent and allowed to flourish.

Let me be clear: The establishment of normal diplomatic relations is not something that one government does as a favor to another; it is something that two countries do together when the citizens of both will benefit. And in this case, the reopening of our embassies is important on two levels: People-to-people and government-to-government.

First, we believe it’s helpful for the people of our nations to learn more about each other, to meet each other. That is why we are encouraged that travel from the United States to Cuba has already increased by 35 percent since January and is continuing to go up. We are encouraged that more and more U.S. companies are exploring commercial ventures here that would create opportunities for Cuba’s own rising number of entrepreneurs, and we are encouraged that U.S. firms are interested in helping Cuba expand its telecommunications and internet links, and that the government here recently pledged to create dozens of new and more affordable Wi-Fi hotspots.

We also want to acknowledge the special role that the Cuban American community is playing in establishing a new relationship between our countries. And in fact, we have with us this morning representatives from that community, some of whom were born here and others who were born in the United States. With their strong ties of culture and family, they can contribute much to the spirit of bilateral cooperation and progress that we are seeking to create, just as they have contributed much to their communities in their adopted land.

The restoration of diplomatic ties will also make it easier for our governments to engage. After all, we are neighbors, and neighbors will always have much to discuss in such areas as civil aviation, migration policy, disaster preparedness, protecting marine environment, global climate change, and other tougher and more complicated issues. Having normal relations makes it easier for us to talk, and talk can deepen understanding even when we know full well we will not see eye to eye on everything.

We are all aware that notwithstanding President Obama’s new policy, the overall U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba remains in place and can only be lifted by congressional action – a step that we strongly favor. For now – (applause). For now, the President has taken steps to ease restrictions on remittances, on exports and imports to help Cuban private entrepreneurs, on telecommunications, on family travel, but we want to go further. The goal of all of these changes is to help Cubans connect to the world and to improve their lives. And just as we are doing our part, we urge the Cuban Government to make it less difficult for their citizens to start businesses, to engage in trade, access information online. The embargo has always been something of a two-way street – both sides need to remove restrictions that have been holding Cubans back.

Before closing, I want to sincerely thank leaders throughout the Americas who have long urged the United States and Cuba to restore normal ties. I thank the Holy Father Pope Francis and the Vatican for supporting the start of a new chapter in relations between our countries. And I think it is not accidental that the Holy Father will come here and then to Washington, the United States at this moment. I applaud President Obama and President Castro both for having the courage to bring us together in the face of considerable opposition. I am grateful to Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson and her team, to our counterparts in the Cuban Foreign Ministry, to our chief of mission, Ambassador Jeff DeLaurentis and his extraordinary staff, for all of the hard work that has led up to this day. And I just say to our wonderful embassy staff, if you think you’ve been busy these past months, hold on to your seatbelts. (Laughter.)

But above all, above all, I want to pay tribute to the people of Cuba and to the Cuban American community in the United States. Jose Marti once said that “everything that divides men…is a sin against humanity.” Clearly, the events of the past – the harsh words, the provocative and retaliatory actions, the human tragedies – all have been a source of deep division that has diminished our common humanity. There have been too many days of sacrifice and sorrow; too many decades of suspicion and fear. That is why I am heartened by the many on both sides of the Straits who – whether because of family ties or a simple desire to replace anger with something more productive – have endorsed this search for a better path.

We have begun to move down that path without any illusions about how difficult it may be. But we are each confident in our intentions, confident in the contacts that we have made, and pleased with the friendships that we have begun to forge.

And we are certain that the time is now to reach out to one another, as two peoples who are no longer enemies or rivals, but neighbors – time to unfurl our flags, raise them up, and let the world know that we wish each other well.

Estamos seguros de que este es el momento de acercarnos: dos pueblos ya no enemigos ni rivales, sino vecinos. Es el momento de desplegar nuestras banderas, enarbolarlas y hacerle saber al resto del mundo que nos deseamos lo mejor los unos a los otros. 

It is with that healing mission in mind that I turn now to Larry Morris, Jim Tracy, and Mike East. Fifty-four years ago, you gentlemen promised to return to Havana and hoist the flag over the United States Embassy that you lowered on that January day long ago. Today, I invite you on behalf of President Obama and the American people to fulfill that pledge by presenting the Stars and Stripes to be raised by members of our current military detachment.

Larry, Jim, and Mike, this is your cue to deliver on words that would make any diplomat proud, just as they would any member of the United States Marine Corps: Promise made, promise kept. Thank you.

(Photo: U.S. Dept.of State via flickr)

(Posted:September 1, 2015)