Cuba’s President Raúl Castro, right, meets United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, second from the right, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, at United Nations headquarters. (AP Photo/Bryan R. Smith). Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, third from right.

October 2, 2015 | by Sandy Marks

In a historic speech in Havana last week Pope Francis, who helped broker the diplomatic dialogue between the two presidents last year, asked President Raúl Castro of Cuba and U.S. President Obama to deepen their relationship and provide an example to “a world that needs reconciliation amidst this Third World War.”

Interestingly, as Asia Times journalist Pepe Escobar has pointed out, Pope Francis did not include this last expression in the original redaction of his speech, but added it on the flight from Rome to Havana – a prophetic as well as personal addition.

As Dutch philosopher Baruch (Benedict) de Spinoza wrote five centuries ago in his Political Treatise: “Men are of necessity liable to passions… and to be prone to vengeance more than to mercy: and moreover, that every individual wishes the rest to live after his own mind, and to approve what he approves, and reject what he rejects. And so it comes to pass, that, as all are equally eager to be first, they fall to strife, and do their utmost mutually to oppress one another; and he who comes out conqueror is more proud of the harm he has done to the other, than of the good he has done to himself…”

Spinoza concludes: “For peace is not mere absence of war, but is a virtue that springs from force of character.”

In his speech to the General Assembly on Monday, President Castro described the reality of the situation since the signing of the United Nations Charter 70 years ago:

“It was seventy years ago that, on behalf of their peoples, the member States of this organization signed the United Nations Charter. We pledged ourselves to preserve future generations from the scourge of war, and to build a new type of relationship, guided by a set of principles and purposes that should bring about an era of peace, justice and development for all of humanity.

“However, as from that moment, there have constantly been wars of aggression, and interference in the internal affairs of the States; the ousting of sovereign governments by force, the so-called ‘soft coups’ and the re-colonization of territories; and, all of these upgraded with new ingenious actions employing new technologies, and under the pretext of alleged human rights violations.”

He said the pledge made in 1945 “‘to promote social progress and better standards of life’ for the peoples, along with their economic and social development, remains an illusion when 795 million people go hungry, 781 million adults are illiterate, and 17 thousand children perish every day from curable diseases, while annual military expenses worldwide amount to more than 1.7 trillion dollars. Barely a fraction of that figure could resolve the most pressing problems afflicting humanity.”

When it comes to examples of building peace, President Castro arrived in New York fresh from arranging, in between the Pope’s visit to Cuba and his own trip to New York, a highly publicized handshake in Havana between President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia and Rodrigo Londoño of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), cementing an agreement to bring to an end within the next six months more than fifty years of civil war in that country. This was the result of years of negotiations held in Havana and brokered by President Castro – an effort also aided and applauded by Pope Francis.

President Castro in his speech also cited the signing in January 2014 by the heads of State and Government of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), of the Proclamation of Latin America and the Caribbean as a Peace Zone. He reminded his U.S. counterpart and the whole General Assembly that there cannot be true normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States as long as the blockade remains in effect, as long as the United States retains its naval base at Guantánamo in Cuba against Cuban wishes, as long as it continues subversion and destabilization programs in Cuba and until the U.S. compensates Cuba for human and economic damages suffered as a result of the blockade, which 188 nations have repeatedly joined Cuba in calling for the United States to end.

This week also brought Presidents Obama and Castro together for the first time on U.S. soil. In his speech, President Obama acknowledged that the policy toward Cuba that the United States has been pursuing for the last fifty years has not worked. While noting that the U.S. and Cuban governments have differences, he pledged to address the issues through diplomatic relations, increased commerce and people-to-people ties and expressed his confidence that Congress would “inevitably” lift the blockade against Cuba.

How long is “inevitably?” While U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker is expected to fly to Cuba next week to increase trade and exchanges between the two countries and possibly complete an agreement to allow direct commercial flights between Cuba and the United States, and there is even talk that President Obama will visit Cuba personally before the end of his term, there is little present chance of Congressional action to end the blockade.

Last week, the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, abruptly announced his retirement amidst speculations he could no longer stand the strain of trying to rein in the right-wingers of his own Republican Party, who insist on a “scorched earth” policy of vituperative obduracy with respect to any accommodation to, much less reconciliation with, Cuba.

Speaker Boehner’s resignation (Boehner is a devout Catholic) came immediately following Pope Francis’ call before the U.S. Congress for an end to the arms trade. Congress had recently approved the sale of lethal arms for Ukraine. The U.S. has long been the world’s largest arms trader, selling more arms than the rest of the countries of the world combined.

After Presidents Castro and Obama talked, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez said in a statement that the meeting had been “held in a respectful and constructive climate.”

Despite the unlikelihood of Congress repealing the blockade, Foreign Minister Rodríguez emphasized, “The executive power of the U.S. president is very broad.” Asked if he thought President Obama would make more use of it before his term expires in 2016, Rodríguez replied: “He has not done so. I expect him to do so.”

While Congress still reflects Spinoza’s pessimistic, but sadly accurate, observations on the political aspects of human nature, it is up to President Obama to demonstrate instead the force of character that Spinoza has urged.

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