Looking back on the history of the conflict, Cuba and the United States tried to impose their political philosophies through confrontation only to have them run aground on the negotiating table. They opted for war as a continuation of politics in order to return to politics as a substitute for war. The presidents of both countries have now announced their willingness to normalize relations, which have been suspended since 1961.
The encouraging news has generated a variety of opinions ranging from those who believe that the problem has been solved to those who believe that nothing in Cuba will change. Some believe that changes are already taking place while others question the intentions of the Cuban government and America’s Republican legislators. Some — I being one of them — think the resumption of relations will be beneficial, albeit difficult and prolonged, for Cuban democratization. This optimism is based on six considerations.
1. In his speech the U.S. president distanced himself from previous demands that Cuba democratize before the embargo is lifted. Instead, he proposed a series of measures that would encourage the empowerment of citizens and serve as a precursor for a discussion in Congress on repealing the law. This shift means there is no more “enemy” to fight and no need to “circle the wagons.” On the Cuban side, there was a tenant of Fidelism, which held that Cuba had already changed in 1959 so there was no need for further change. This has given way to the Raulist viewpoint, which is inclined to see some things change.
2. The shift by the United States is a response to the failure of a policy whose goal was to promote change in Cuba as well as to the regional and international self-isolation that resulted from the policy. Cuba’s shift, though presented as a victory, reveals a failure of economic leadership, meager results from efforts at reform, mass exodus, widespread corruption and growing dissatisfaction. It occurs at a time when the fragility of Venezuelan oil subsidies is a topic of discussion and no new financial savior has appeared on the horizon.
3. The series of measures by the White House includes an increase in authorized travel to Cuba, management training for private Cuban businesses and farmers, an increase on the limit of remittances to individuals and donations to humanitarian projects, an expansion in the sale and commercial export of goods and services from the United States including to Cuba’s private sector, expanded communication access from Cuba and the ability to communicate freely, and allowing U.S. telecommunication providers to offer internet services at lower prices.
4. Since assuming power in 2006, the Cuban president has expressed a willingness to normalize relations with the United States and to adopt some domestic measures such as emigration reform. On the other side there has been a relaxation of certain policies by the American president since 2009, which paved the way for the joint announcement on December 17, 2014.
5. The measures by the White House assume an orderly and peaceful transition. This policy serves as a guarantee to those in power, to those who are responsible for everything both good or bad that has happened over a very long period of time. Nevertheless, I think the government of Cuba will try to slow the process even though its leaders know it is unavoidable. They realize that, if it all ends in violence, they will be the losers. Organized democratization guarantees stability and the future of the Cuban nation.
6. Cuba was able to mobilize individuals, institutions and governments to subvert the embargo. Several Latin American figures were involved or served as intermediaries. Canada and the Vatican also played a prominent role. With the enemy gone and the threat allayed, the previous rhetoric has become meaningless. These committed forces expect changes in Cuba in response to Obama’s speech. Denying this would mean losing the support achieved so far.
In order to evaluate the significance of these measures, it is worth analyzing the stagnation and reversals suffered during the period of confrontation. These include the disappearance of civil society, the absence of basic liberties, the subordination of the economy to politics, the loss of the Cubans’ status as citizens and other ills. Under a regime which might more accurately be defined as Fidelist, a key characteristic of which was confrontation, there was a refusal to back down until the opponent backed down. Better for the country to sink into the ocean, as was stated on one occasion.
As external conflicts supplanted internal ones, military confrontation became a way to avoid making any compromises on human rights. As the effects of the above-mentioned negotiations begin to take effect, however, external tensions will gradually give way to the tensions between people and government. What happens after that will be the sole and exclusive responsibility of Cubans themselves.
Given current conditions, doubts over the normalization of relations will be kicked aside at the negotiating table. Previous rescues were financed by subsidies from the Soviet Union and Venezuela, but the former has disappeared and the latter is bankrupt. There has also been little success at attracting foreign capital and there is no chance a new financial savior will suddenly appear.
It is a phenomenon unprecedented in history. A government that came to power by force has — despite fifty-five years of ongoing ineffectiveness and economic mismanagement — spearheaded this change without any other person, group or party managing to establish an alternative power base. With apparent continuity, Fidelism is being discarded in the name of Fidelism. It is an oddity that calls for detailed analysis, debate and research. How did a country with a western orientation and a civil society that arose in the first half of the twentieth century and lasted until mid-century — a country that had one of the most advanced constitutions for its time – manage to regress to a point of such economic, spiritual and societal decay?
The normalization of relations, although important, is only a first step. Lifting the embargo now depends more on the Cuban government than the United States. It involves moving beyond an expressed willingness to actually implementing measures to empower citizens and weaken opposition to repealing the law in Congress. Otherwise, it will work to the advantage of opponents of normalization. It is quite simple: lifting of the embargo is in the hands of Cuba, in domestic actions implemented for the benefit of Cubans.
In spite of this difficult hurdle, there will be a gradual and civilized process of transformation, whose success will depend on the commitment of the Cuban people, who have been deprived of the freedom and opportunities that are the lifeblood of a nation’s citizenry. It is one whose sense of civic responsibility has been lost but which can now no longer be ignored.
The shifting landscape will allow for a restructuring of the foundations that determine the fate of a nation and each of its people. Therefore, the importance of restoring diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States will depend to some extent on the behavior of both governments, but above all on the will and actions of Cubans themselves, a responsibility that can not be assumed by any government foreign or domestic.
19 January 2015