Being realistic about Cuba

Presidents Obama and Castro

By David Jessop 

 
On 1 February, President Castro began an official visit to France.
 
Apart from confirming the historic, philosophical and cultural affinities between the French and Cuban revolutions, the visit is expected to result in new economic, financial and commercial ties, and will add further to global interest in change and opportunity in Cuba.
 
It will be another example of how, paradoxically, the process of normalising US-Cuba relations and the removal of Cuba from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, has freed all G20 nations and many others to engage at high levels with Cuba, and more generally has spurred a dialogue about future financing, multilateral development support, resolving indebtedness, and commercial opportunity. 
 
By limiting the openings for its own people, the US administration has also, perhaps intentionally, created rapid tourism driven growth in Cuba, built pent up demand in US corporations, indirectly encouraged corporate lobbying and congressional interest in the more rapid easing of US policy, undercut the Cuban American right in key electoral swing states, and more closely aligned US policy with US public opinion.
 
It has also enabled Latin America and the Caribbean to consolidate their relations with Cuba and for Cuba to consolidate its central role in newer regional political institutions such as The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC).
 
Détente takes time
 
But in all of this, what is particularly striking about new thinking on Cuba is that it is often coupled with an almost wilful lack of realism about the process of normalisation, what is and is not possible because of the continuing US embargo, and the complexity of dealing with a country that remains enigmatic, even to many Cubans, and often opaque.
 
This particularly manifests itself in a failure to consider the country’s extraordinary mix of nationalism, patriotism, subdued materialism, entrepreneurship, or the genuine sense of social commitment and equity that binds most Cubans together, and which largely sets aside western linear analysis.
 
What also is little considered is that the process of détente, if taken to its ultimate conclusion, requires two geographically proximate 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 new relationship based on functional co-operation through normalisation and dialogue.
 
 It wants to establish people to people contact through travel, trade, education and increased internet penetration in the hope that all these approaches may fundamentally change thinking in Cuba. Its approach may possibly involve ending the trade embargo as a part of some end game, but aims to encourage creeping political and economic change in the hope that Cuba will adopt US democratic principles. It may also be about dislocating the Cuba -Venezuela relationship as well as improving US relations with Latin America. Ultimately it is about an embrace that Washington hopes will lead to fundamental change in Cuba.
 
Global role
Seen from a Cuban perspective, the process is about something quite different. 
 
While Havana certainly concurs about the need for functional co-operation and closer economic ties, it is only interested in achieving this in ways that ensure respect, sovereign integrity, and relate to its model of social and economic change.
 
Space does not permit more than an outline, but for this reason for Cuba the normalisation process is of significance it can support its insertion into the global economy by enabling trade, investment, credits and multilateral flows. It is also about creating a stable base on which to make more secure modernising changes to Cuba’s political and economic system that are intended to reorient its economy and society before those who led its revolution hand over to the next generation.
 
What it is not about is fundamental change. Rather for Cuba, to paraphrase one senior figure in Havana, it is about being left alone to find an unmediated place in Latin America and the Caribbean and the wider world free from external interference.
 
To these different and seemingly unlikely ends both sides have begun a long and complex dialogue that requires elements of a history of mistrust to be set aside and a focus placed on issues that have both practical and political domestic dimensions in the US and in Cuba.
 
Step by step
 
By mutual agreement, Cuba and the US have begun what is in effect a three-phase process.
 
The first phase and easiest in comparison to the other two involves the establishment of working groups on functional issues. The list of topics is now long and ranges from co-operation on counter narcotics issues, through postal services, to issues related to maritime boundary delimitation. Its breadth is a good indication of how the re-establishment of diplomatic relations is enabling both sides to address issues of mutual importance that have largely been ignored for more than fifty years.
 
The second complex and more difficult phase involves what will likely become a trade-off involving the consideration of the level of compensation for registered US claims for expropriated assets, and Cuba’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 to litigation.
 
And the third component is the full normalisation of the relationship. This hard to achieve objective is of a different order entirely, 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, the return of the US base at Guantanamo, and the ending all US actions aimed at regime change
 
Continuing under socialism
The reality is that far from allowing itself to be embraced by the US, Cuba plans to continue to resist Washington’s influence, defend its national values and independent global outlook, continue developing its own social thinking, and select strategic commercial  opportunity in its own timescale wherever it presents itself.
 
It is therefore scarcely surprising that against this background it is in parallel deepening relations at all levels with the countries of Europe and the European Union, Russia, China, Brazil and others or that it is encouraging President Obama to take more ambitious actions within his prerogative given possibility of political change in Washington. 
 
To put all this in perspective, the main focus of the Cuban Communist Party Congress in March of this year will not be about détente, but most likely Cuba’s future socialist model; a new electoral law about which so far little has been heard; the success and failures of the delivery of the ‘lineamentos’, the guidelines for reform; the next planning period; how to better manager and integrate Cuba’s new entrepreneurial sector; the role of the internet;  and the next generation of leadership and re-engagement with Cuba’s youth.
 
This of course is not to deny, or incompatible with the now widespread sense of optimism among almost all Cubans about change and renewal that détente may bring; nor is it to gloss over the absence of some freedoms; but to try to try to inject a degree of realism about future change.
 
 
David Jessop is a consultant to the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at
Previous columns can be found at www.caribbean-council.org
Background articles on Caribbean issues can be found on our Intelligent Thinking pages.
29 January, 2016
 
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