GUSTAVO Machin Gomez remembers Pakistan and its stormy politics very well. At a diplomatic gathering in Havana recently he told me about his time in Islamabad where he served as the ambassador of Cuba recently. He is heading the Cuba-US branch, one of the most important sections of the Cuban Ministry of External Affairs known as Minrex in Havana’s diplomatic lingo.

While he shared his experiences in Islamabad with nostalgia, I was more interested in the future of US-Cuba relations frozen in time for more than half a century. I was interested in the future of Cuba’s ties with its nearest neighbour, the US — just 145 kilometres north of where this conversation took place.

“So when are you resuming normal diplomatic relations with the US?” I asked the soft-spoken, suave Cuban diplomat.

For a few seconds he was almost taken aback. Before he could answer, I fired the second salvo. “Who can be a better person to answer this question, señor ambassador?”

“I don’t know,” he said with a straight face after absorbing my question. “We haven’t imposed any sanctions on them. They have.”

The phone rang — with good news from Fidel Castro’s land. A new chapter had begun.
And then he went on to recite a long list of the troubles they were having because of the sanctions.

“Do you understand that our interest section in the US has to live off a stack of cash as no US bank would open a bank account for them? Can you imagine how difficult that would be? The US can answer your question better,” said Gustavo.

And then he volunteered some information about what was going to happen. He said Cuba and the US had agreed to resume postal service, but that he didn’t know how that would happen because the countries would need to have direct commercial flights for a normal postal service.

“I see, so this is your actual plan to resume commercial flights? First, you agree to have a postal service and then you open commercial airlines because that is the only way you can have the postal service restored. Very smart!” I quipped. There was some laughter in the room but nobody could imagine at that time what was to happen just days after this conversation.

As I look back now, the man who headed the section dealing with just one country, in secret negotiations with Cuba for 18 months unlocking the logjam of more than half a century, couldn’t be out of the loop and was most probably holding his cards firmly to his chest.

He probably thought that the conversation would end here but I persisted by sounding over-pessimistic. “Well, with the house and the Senate both gone Republican in the midterm polls last month, Obama is now a lame duck. His time to deliver on Cuba has come and gone,” I said.

No, Gustavo said. “He can still do a lot. The president of the US has tremendous executive powers to do a lot of things, if he wants to. He can liberalise trade, issue special licences and more.”

We exchanged smiles and as I left, I had dozens of conversations with people from all walks of life from Pinar Del Rio in the west to Holguin in the far eastern province of the island.

Most Cubans were angry over the sanctions. A foreign diplomat told me that sanctions actually work for the Cuban government as they use the sanction argument for all systemic problems they have. Maybe, Obama understood this better than his predecessors.

With his term ending in less than two years, he has now nothing to lose. So he went into overdrive to agree to resume full diplomatic relations, frozen for over half a century.

A few hours after I arrived back from Havana, I made a courtesy call at the Cuban ambassador Jesus Zenen’s residence to thank him for his help during my visit. As we were talking, his phone started ringing. He and his wife almost started dancing after what they heard from Cuba.

As I was leaving, another call from Cuba came. This time, Mario Alzogaray, the head of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Asia Desk, whom I met recently in Havana, was on the line, breaking the news of the century. The Cuban ambassador told him that I too was with him.

He asked him to pass the phone. I told him I had brought good luck for them. He laughed and said thank you.

“Had you stayed a few hours longer, you would have joined the dance of the Cuban people on the streets,” said the Cuban ambassador to me as I departed from his residence. The rest, they say, is history.

The writer is a broadcast journalist and former head of Radio Pakistan, based in Islamabad.