Being realistic about US Cuba relations
On February 1 President Castro willbegin an official visit to France.Apart from confirming the historic, philosophical and cultural affinitiesbetween the French and Cuban revolutions, the visit is expected to result innew economic, financial and commercial ties, and will add further to globalinterest in change and opportunity in Cuba.
It will be another example of how,paradoxically, the process of normalising US-Cuba relations and the removal ofCuba from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, has freed all G20 nationsand many others to engage at high levels with Cuba, and more generally has spurreda dialogue about future financing, multilateral development support, resolving indebtedness,and commercial opportunity.
By limiting the openings for its ownpeople, the US administration has also, perhaps intentionally, created rapidtourism driven growth in Cuba, built pent up demand in US corporations,indirectly encouraged corporate lobbying and congressional interest in the morerapid easing of US policy, undercut the Cuban American right in key electoralswing states, and more closely aligned US policy with US public opinion.
It has also enabled Latin America andthe Caribbean to consolidate their relations with Cubaand for Cubato consolidate its central role in newer regional political institutions suchas The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
But in all of this, what is particularlystriking about new thinking on Cuba is that it is often coupled with an almost wilfullack of realism about the process of normalisation, what is and is not possiblebecause of the continuing US embargo, and the complexity of dealing with acountry that remains enigmatic, even to many Cubans, and often opaque.
This particularly manifests itself in a failureto consider the country’s extraordinary mix of nationalism, patriotism, subduedmaterialism, entrepreneurship, or the genuine sense of social commitment andequity that binds most Cubans together, and which largely sets aside westernlinear analysis.
What also is little considered is thatthe process of détente, if taken to its ultimate conclusion, requires two geographicallyproximate nations with completely different political, economic and social values,agreeing to accept living side-by-side.
Seen from Washington’s perspective it is seeking a newrelationship based on functional co-operation through normalisation anddialogue.
Itwants to establish people to people contact through travel, trade, educationand increased internet penetration in the hope that all these approaches mayfundamentally change thinking in Cuba. Its approach may possiblyinvolve ending the trade embargo as a part of some end game, but aims to encouragecreeping political and economic change in the hope that Cuba will adoptUS democratic principles. It may also be about dislocating the Cuba -Venezuelarelationship as well as improving US relations with Latin America. Ultimately it is about an embrace that Washingtonhopes will lead to fundamental change in Cuba.
Seen from a Cuban perspective, theprocess is about something quite different.
While Havana certainly concurs about the need for functionalco-operation and closer economic ties, it is only interested in achieving this inways that ensure respect, sovereign integrity, and relate to its model of socialand economic change.
Space does not permit more than an outline,but for this reason for Cubathe normalisation process is of significance it can support its insertion intothe global economy by enabling trade, investment, credits and multilateralflows. It is also about creating a stable base on which to make more secure modernisingchanges to Cuba’s political and economic system that are intended to reorientits economy and society before those who led its revolution hand over to thenext generation.
What it is not about is fundamentalchange. Rather for Cuba, toparaphrase one senior figure in Havana, it is aboutbeing left alone to find an unmediated place in Latin America and the Caribbean and the wider world free from externalinterference.
To these different and seemingly unlikelyends both sides have begun a long and complex dialogue that requires elementsof a history of mistrust to be set aside and a focus placed on issues that haveboth practical and political domestic dimensions in the US and in Cuba.
By mutual agreement, Cuba and the US have begun what is in effect athree phase process.
The first phase and easiest incomparison to the other two involves the establishment of working groups onfunctional issues. The list of topics is now long and ranges from co-operationon counter narcotics issues, through postal services, to issues related tomaritime boundary delimitation. Its breadth is a good indication of how the re-establishmentof diplomatic relations is enabling both sides to address issues of mutual importancethat have largely been ignored for more than fifty years.
The second complex and more difficult phaseinvolves what will likely become a trade-off involving the consideration of thelevel of compensation for registered US claims for expropriated assets, andCuba’s requirement for compensation for the damage caused by the US embargo.This process is likely to be contentious, lengthy and in the US, subject tolitigation.
And the third component is the full normalisationof the relationship. This hard to achieve objective is of a different orderentirely, not least because for most Cubans it is wrapped in emotion,nationalism and identity, and would require the ending of every aspect of the US embargo, thereturn of the US base at Guantanamo, and the ending all US actions aimed atregime change
The reality is that far from allowingitself to be embraced by the US, Cuba plans to continue to resist Washington’sinfluence, defend its national values and independent global outlook, continuedeveloping its own social thinking, and select strategic commercial opportunity in its own timescale wherever itpresents itself.
It is therefore scarcely surprising thatagainst this background it is in parallel deepening relations at all levelswith the countries of Europe and the European Union, Russia, China, Brazil and othersor that it is encouraging President Obama to take more ambitious actions withinhis prerogative given possibility of political change in Washington.
To put all this in perspective, the mainfocus of the Cuban Communist Party Congress in March of this year will not beabout détente, but most likely Cuba’s future socialist model; a new electorallaw about which so far little has been heard; the success and failures of thedelivery of the ‘lineamentos’, the guidelines for reform; the next planningperiod; how to better manager and integrate Cuba’s new entrepreneurial sector;the role of the internet; and the nextgeneration of leadership and re-engagement with Cuba’s youth.
This of course is not to deny, orincompatible with the now widespread sense of optimism among almost all Cubansabout change and renewal that détente may bring; nor is it to gloss over theabsence of some freedoms; but to try to try to inject a degree of realism aboutfuture change.
David Jessop is a consultant to theCaribbean Council and can be contacted at
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