On December 17, 2014, President Obama announced that he was ordering “the most significant changes to our policy in more than fifty years” and that the United States was “changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.” While only Congress can lift the embargo, the changes Obama announced were indeed significant: re-establishing diplomatic relations, opening a review of Cuba’s designation as a sponsor of state terrorism, and further easing travel, trade, and aid restrictions.
The speech came on the heels of a series of embarrassments for the United States, as clumsy covert programs aimed at promoting ‘civil society’ in Cuba were revealed and WikiLeaks cables acknowledged that US-supported ‘dissidents’ had little importance to Cuban society. Obama reiterated the US goal to change Cuba’s domestic and foreign policies, but explained that 50 years of hostility had not achieved the goal, and it was time for a new approach. Nevertheless, “we will continue to support civil society there,” he reassured doubters. “I respect your passion and share your commitment to liberty and democracy.”
The US media sought reactions on the streets in Miami and Havana, and among a few chosen “dissidents” in Cuba. It generally ignored Cuban scholars and academics who have been laying the groundwork for better relations over several decades, visiting the United States (when the State Department has agreed to let them), collaborating with US counterparts in research, presentations, and publishing, while also opposing US policies and insisting on Cuba’s right to change in its own way and at its own pace, not as mandated by its northern neighbor.
The progressive Cuban journal Temas has brought together critical Cuban intellectuals since the early 1990s. These are not the “dissidents” supported and promoted by the U.S. State Department to bring about regime change. They are progressive Cubans who are engaged nationally and internationally in debating the changes, forced and desired, that have been unfolding in Cuba since the fall of the Soviet bloc.
Temas responded to Obama’s announcement by asking researchers in both countries to comment on a series of questions, and published the responses in the journal’s blog, Catalejo. Those on the US side included well-known academics like political scientists Jorge Domínguez (Harvard University) and William LeoGrande (American University), and historian Margaret Crahan (Columbia). But while Cuban readers had access to these voices, American readers had little access to their Cuban counterparts.
The Cuban scholars, like the Americans, overwhelmingly lauded the lessening of hostilities. Economist Pedro Monreal cautioned, though, that “the new policies between the two countries have the potential to positively influence Cuba’s development, but we must be clear that in and of themselves, these policies will not be sufficient to make Cuba more economically prosperous or bring about popular democracy or social justice.” Every word is important here. While the United States generally, and Obama explicitly in his speech, claim to promote “democracy” in Cuba, Monreal emphasizes that US-style democracy is not the only option. “Popular democracy” with “social justice,” Cuban style, suggests a revolutionary goal with very different implications.
One of the questions Temas asked was very little addressed in the US media: to what extent did hemispheric developments affect the US-Cuba rapprochement? “Any advance in Cuba-US relations is compatible with the framework of hemispheric relations that is perhaps most distinctively characterized by political heterogeneity,” according to Monreal. “For several years now it has been clear that the United States has not been able to ‘align’ inter-hemispheric frameworks for negotiation and cooperation according to its will. Thus in addition to frequent disagreements in the heart of the traditional organizations, new organizations have been formed that have excluded the United States.”
The new US-Cuba relations “will have an impact in inter-hemispheric relations in at least three areas: the possible reconfiguration of the dynamics that the relatively more ‘radical’ governments (e.g. Ecuador, Venezuela, or Bolivia) can push for in the traditional hemispheric entities like the OAS [Organization of American States] and the IADB [Inter-American Development Bank]; the eventual change in the relations between these entities (OAS and IADB) and others that the United States does not belong to (like CELAC [Community of Latin American and Caribbean States]); and a greater capacity for Cuba to contribute to inter-hemispheric cooperation, including working with the United States, building on the successful recent cooperation in the fight against Ebola.”
Monreal credited “the resistance of the Cuban people” with pushing Obama towards the new political opening. He insisted that “The so-called ‘normalization’ of relations between Cuba and the United States certainly includes aspects that are potentially positive for the Cuban people, like the growth in exports and jobs, and an eventual ‘peace dividend.’ But it also contains some latent elements that would not be considered ‘normal’ by the majority of Cubans, like the possible ‘Tijuanization’ of the labor market. It could be disastrous for Cuban society if we allow the normalization process to be governed by market values (like ‘efficiency’ or ‘economic rationality’) … The road to national wellbeing in a new context of relations with the United States should be decided on by the Cuban people in accordance with their own values and interests and not as the result of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market. The ‘normalization,’ however we understand it, should be managed by deliberate policies.”
Monreal concludes that “A favorable context that ensures a real political empowerment for the majority of citizens — especially by preventing inequality from distorting the political process — would be the best guarantee that Cuban society’s re-encounter with the most imposing capitalist society that has ever existed does not lead to a ‘normalization’ of relations like what existed during the ‘republican’ period in Cuba, nor reproduce here the ‘model’ that characterizes US capital in many Latin American and Caribbean countries.”
Political analyst and Temas editorial board member Carlos Alzugaray noted that stereotypes dominated in each country’s impressions of the other. “For the majority of Cubans, the United States is an imperialist power that has traditionally been opposed to our national independence, and therefore everything that comes from our northern neighbor should be viewed with mistrust. For most North Americans, the Cuban government is a horrible communist dictatorship that constitutes a threat to the United States. These stereotypes create mistrust and have impeded movement towards civilized relations.”
Alzugaray insisted that the change ought to be seen in the context of inter-American relations. He acknowledged that some in the Latin American left and even in Cuba reacted by suggesting that “nothing has changed, the same struggle continues, just in new forms.” However, “an alternative analysis, which I am sympathetic to, argues that what happened is a signal that the United States is changing. We should take advantage of this change according to our interests … The United States is in a clear process of imperial over-extension … Faced with its loss of power, one sector of the elite is pushing to change its international behavior.” University of Havana professor of International Relations Jesús Arboleya argued in even stronger terms that “the reestablishment of relations with Cuba responded to an urgent need by the United States to preserve the pan-American system” in response to its waning power.
Like Monreal, Alzugaray emphasizes that maintaining Cuban independence during the process of warming relations is essential. “Citizens and institutions must think deeply and act with agility to promote whatever is in our national interest. This could mean taking advantage of the economic, commercial, and financial circumstances without making any concessions regarding our independence, self-determination, and security.”
Political scientist Rafael Hernández criticized the “eruption of neo-Cubanology” in the United States that “has confused the peace pipe with an act of political prostration and with the end of socialism. They attribute the change not to Washington, but to Havana (‘the Castros’ age’; ‘the coming end of the alliance with Venezuela’) and claim that the main result will be ‘opening a transition’ (‘after the Castros’) in which ‘the United States will be the most trusted actor’.”
Like the others cited, Hernández emphasizes the hemispheric context as a key factor pressuring the United States to relax hostilities. “Even though there are no other communist parties in government, and the Cuban political system is not necessarily admired by many governments, the hemisphere is a much more comfortable place for the island than it is for the United States. Clearly, Cuba’s presence at the [OAS] Summit [of the Americas] in Panama in three months will be a result of this hemispheric shift, not a decision nor a concession by the United States. For the United States, the option of boycotting the Summit because of the Cuban presence would have been a cure worse than the disease. This issue surely played a role in Obama’s decision to put all of his Cuban cards on the table on December 17th.”
Hernández offered a nuanced critique of US imperial policy. “Probably not only President Obama, but the individual Barack, really believes in the benefit of ‘promoting [US] values’ (as he said in his speech) in Cuba and elsewhere, because for him, they are universal. And where they aren’t accepted (Africa, the Middle East, China, Afghanistan, Russia, et al), there is a deficit that must be corrected. We Cubans should understand that this stance reflects cultural ethnocentrism more than ideology. If we want to connect and coexist with this northern society, we must rely on certain virtues (patience, perseverance, prudence), and distinguish between its imperialist impulse (which does exist) and this ethnocentrism, even though the two are connected.”
The long history of US-Cuban relations, for Hernández, brings particular challenges as well as hopes for the future. On one hand, the United States demands to exert greater control on Cuba than on other countries. “Even though Obama referred to the logic of US policy towards China and Vietnam to justify the change in policy towards Cuba, the United States sees Asians as strange inhabitants of the Antipodes, not small islands ‘under the US’ that until recently were its ‘possessions.’ For the culture of Big Brother, the Chinese government is permitted to prevent an organized group from approaching Tiananmen Square for whatever reason; and the Vietnamese can imprison its anti-government bloggers, without harming relations with the United States. In fact, bilateral relations for the past twenty years have included annual meetings to discuss their differences regarding human rights and democracy.”
“Still, there are also comparative advantages in the cultural relationship between the United States and Cuba. Cubans are more culturally North American than the majority of the hemisphere. North Americans generally feel less foreign in Havana than in other capitals, not to mention safer. If they come, they can see for themselves that the Cubans don’t so much need the United States to ‘help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century’ (as Obama said in his speech). Rather, they need the United States to stop impeding their access to technology. It would be better for the two societies to encounter each other, without trying to interfere in each others’ business, as neighbors who share a passion for baseball, Studebakers, Latin Jazz, home appliances, hip hop, modernity, taste in movies, and common sites of history like New York and Havana, among many other things.”
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