The reopening of embassies in Washington and Havana is a symbolic act and a historic step. But the step taken is only one on a long journey, writes DW's Uta Thofern.
The flagpoles have already been erected in Washington and Havana. When the flags are raised, both Presidents Obama and Castro will surely be applauded for their agreement. The renewal of diplomatic relations after 50 icy years has met with wide acceptance all over the world. An anachronism has been consigned to history.
Obama must overcome resistance
But this is only the beginning of a long, rocky road full of obstacles. Unlike Castro, President Obama must rely on his wayward Congress to obtain approval for the renovation of the embassy.
And even though that procedure is probably the least of Obama's problems, it is nonetheless a symbolic example of what he faces.
The most powerful man in the world must have the authorization of his country's legislature for all expenditures. He even had to wait 40 days to find out if Congress was willing to drop Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism before he could take further steps. He will not be able to appoint an ambassador without the approval of Congress. And most importantly, the trade embargo against Cuba will only be lifted if he prevails over cross-party resistance in Congress.
Democracy is an arduous affair. Quite often, authoritarian state leaders in the world contemptuously look down on complicated struggles for compromise, countless agreement processes and control mechanisms, which they readily interpret as weakness or hypocrisy. To such statesmen, showing strength and being a winner become all the more important in politics when convincing arguments diminish. And several Latin Americans nations that have suspiciously eyed the rapprochement between the US and Cuba now propagate the idea that the development is a defeat of imperialist forces and a victory for the Cuban revolution.
Left-wing, populist governments from Venezuela to Argentina, and Nicaragua to Ecuador, now all have a reason to worry: the American government's new course of action now defies their painstakingly created political bogeymen.
The USA's overtures to Cuba have made for a lasting improvement in the United States' image, changed the political climate on the continent, given the Organization of American States new meaning and the United States a new chance. Cuba's decision, on the other hand, must be seen within the context of its economic problems, which were exacerbated by the economic crisis in Venezuela.
No change of system in Cuba
It is no coincidence that the Cuban government has increased pressure on the opposition: There have never been as many random arrests as in recent months. The signal is clear: the only reason for restoring relations with the USA is to gain access to hard currency. Changing the political system is not the issue.
Skeptics in the US Congress, critics within Cuba's opposition and opposition activists in exile are right: the reconciliation between the US and Cuba is not a victory for democracy. But the reopening of the embassies will pave the way for more opportunities of direct exchanges between the countries and the people, opportunities for dialogue. Democracy does not need flamboyant victories.