Cuba-United States: The challenges of normalization

“Surprisingly enough, his speech was more a social democratic proposal than a liberal or neoliberal one, thus connecting with one of the ideological-political currents on the rise in Cuba and with its eventual social base.”

Puede leer aquí la versión en español de este artículo.

This text belongs to the file titled “Five Years after the visit of Barack Obama to Cuba.

This text belongs to the file titled “Five Years after the visit of Barack Obama to Cuba.

Within a few weeks, five years will have passed after the visit of president Obama to Cuba. As it happens with many events, the pictures that circulated in the media from the very beginning of this visit, as well as the inner mechanisms of memory, have contributed to mythologize them with some sort of mark. Given these circumstances, Temas invited a group of scholars on inter-American relations from the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, and particularly from Cuba, to reflect on their connotation. We are retrieving these observations because of their effectiveness to think critically and equably about some problems of today and about future scenarios.

*Published on April 6, 2016

I write these words after seeing an already immense mass of comments before and after the visit of President Barack Obama to Cuba, coming from different authors and with different judgments. I will therefore focus my observations on what I consider to be the challenges that the so-called "normalization process" will face from now on.

  1. The unusual visit of a president of the United States to the Republic of Cuba, accompanied by his family and a huge entourage of advisors and guests, closes the first stage of the normalization process initiated on December 17, 2014 with the well-known statements of U.S. President Barak Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro. This stage marked the beginning of normalization of diplomatic relations between both States and governments, some steps toward economic opening, authorizations to exchange some goods and servicesparticularly in communications and transportationand the signature of some cooperation agreements.

Obama's visit to the island would contribute to make the normalization process "irreversible", reinforce its "historical legacy" and test the U.S.’s ability to influence the internal Cuban scenario and sectors of its society. In this regard, we can consider Obama's visit as a success in terms of image and social communication.

The Cuban government had made it possible to begin negotiations by making them no longer conditional on the prior removal of the U.S. economic and financial blockade against the country. Now it has favored their continuity by receiving the U.S. president with the declared intention of addressing sectors of the Cuban population as the culmination of previously announced actions to influence a change of regime in Cuba, by other means.

The Cuban government has tried to compensate for these U.S. gestures and intentions with repeated declarations about the present and future conditions of this “normalization process”, such as respect for the Cuban people’s unrestricted sovereignty and self-determination; the negotiation of their differences on equal terms; relations based on international law; and full independence concerning foreign policy. Future experience will tell us how viable this normalization process turns out under these conditions.

The contents of the private exchanges between the two presidents on national and international issues remain to be known or conjectured. We may assume that on the part of the United States they were the delimitation of sovereignty over the waters of the Gulf between the countries; their future role in the Cuban economic reform; positions with regard to the processes of change in Latin America and the Caribbean; the actions against the embargo; and the pending issues of normalization. On our end, the Cuban government would have reiterated its demands for a complete normalizationthe lifting of the economic and financial blockade, compensation for the damages caused to the Cuban people, end of the subversive actions against the Cuban regime, and the return of the territory of the Guantanamo Naval Base, as well as the refusal of the U.S. government’s explicit intentions to sway the ongoing process of reforms in Cuba.

2. As it was to be expected, Barack Obama's visit to Cuba was designed as a show that enjoyed all kinds of facilities from the Cuban side. Leaving aside any “secret intentions”, there is no denying that his emotional speeches had the expected quality and acceptance. Both his appearance and speeches were a practical exercise of what he himself has called "soft power".

Obama himself made his visit into a turning point and a historic milestone for his stated commitment: "I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas. I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people".

Unexpectedly, Obama spoke little of the economy, of "the updating of the Cuban economic model", initiated more than five years ago, or of the open debate on a new model. However, he reiterated his rejection of the embargo. He referred to the ongoing reform process by suggesting, amusingly, that we should accelerate it "as a partner with the United States". He chose instead to promote his personal "creed" on the assumption that it should be carried out in Cuba.

As Rafael Hernandez says, Obama “mapped out all things forbidden" in Cuba. But what is most interesting is that his discourse robbed the socialist sectors, critical of Cuban society, of a large part of their demands for destatization, deregulation, decentralization, socialization, self-government and self-management, as well as for greater democratic development ("democracy is the way that we solve them", Obama dixit) understood as better deliberation, representation and participation of the population. These are internal ideas and demands to Cuban society found in the communist tradition of "full democracy" (Rosa Luxemburg dixit). Such coincidences would explain how receptive he was to the Cubans rather than his calls for a "future of hope" and his promises of an accompanied future.

Obama showed himself to be keenly aware of Cuban society and of the possible evolution of its internal and external scenarios. He identified "spaces" for influence and spoke to emerging sectors using their name ("self-employed", "entrepreneurs"), generational sectors ("I am appealing to the young people of Cuba"), disadvantaged groups ("Afro-descendants"), at-risk population, etc.

Surprisingly enough, his speech was more a social democratic proposal than a liberal or neoliberal one, thus connecting with one of the ideological-political currents on the rise in Cuba and with its eventual social base. In a society that, to its regret, is increasing its pattern of inequality, his preaching was that we can all win.

Finally, he lapsed into imperial arrogance when he said, "Cuba does not have to be defined by being against the United States...", as if the Cuban national identity, forged in five hundred years, depended on them. Curiously enough, it was the break with U.S. rule what allowed the Cuban nation its universal recognition.

3. If President Obama were to use the remaining months of his term to influence the normalization process with new executive measures, he would favor even more the continuity of his policy by a new Administration and make that process enter a new stage. This would mean that the de facto powers that approve his Cuba policy will be with him until the end and that the pressure and opinion groups in his favor will increase.

Another favorable condition would be that, as it has up until now, the Cuban issue would be out of the current electoral dispute, which is possible but not probable.

4. In a more general way, the coming stages of the normalization process will dependon the U.S. sideon the shapes that future Administrations will give to their Cuba policy and the role that their geopolitical premises will play in it. On the Cuban side, the progress of its economic recovery, the institutional changes and the degree of penetration that the United States will have reached by then in the Cuban economy and society.

A point of disagreement will be the U.S. policy to regain its hegemony over Latin America and the Caribbean (“todos somos Americanos” [we are all American]) and the political, economic and military support ensuing from it. The intended triangulation with the Cuba policy and the regional policy will be a permanent source of disagreement and eventually of confrontation, something that might get even worse under future Administrations.

In this connection, it is worth bearing in mind that the weakening of the progressive forces in governments across the region will modify the correlation of forces, with the predominance of the center-right axis in those countries, which will have an impact on all mechanisms of regional economic integration. Even more so, on those of political coordination, such as the OAS and CELAC. This will affect the regional options to support Cuba’s positions in the normalization process.

Cuba should promote Latin American unity and at the same time a concerted agenda vis-à-vis the United States; likewise, it should maintain its solidarity with the governments of the region that promote sovereign changes in favor of the great majorities of their countries.

5. It seems that the next stages in the so-called normalization process between Cuba and the United States will not take place as “smoothly” as in the first one. In all likelihood, the next U.S. Administrations will take the attitude that it is the Cuban side’s place to make gestures or concessions that justify the new steps toward normalization on the part of the United States. This “give-and-take” notion will make it very difficult for Cuba’s demands to get a response. The Cuban Party and government will have to adjust their negotiating strategies to these conditions.

Perhaps the greatest challenge for the Cuban governmentcurrent and futureis how to deal with the U.S.’s intention to be an internal actor in Cuban society and politics, an imperial vocation that is difficult to contain. In fact, Obama's display during his recent visit to Havana did not receive the expected protocol or performance limitations from the Cuban side.

Another complex challenge for the Cuban leadership will be to recompose its hegemonic discourse on Cuban society, including the reforms underway, the normalization of relations with the United States and, at the same time, the Cuban Revolution’s commitment to the Third World, Latin American, anti-imperialism, and anti-capitalism.

6. A more fundamental question bound to underlie the whole process of normalization and make it indefinite is each country’s conception about the state of "normality" of relations between both governments and States. Its status as a superpower, regional ruler and leader of global capitalism will give the United States an asymmetric perception of any scenario that it considers "normalized" and an irrepressible propensity to dominate its geopolitical space. Cuba will always be the weak link in these relations and will have to permanently restrain the imperial vocation of the United States. To this end, the Cubans should never forget that there are incompatible contradictions between the two partiesabout geopolitics, national and social projects, Latin American and Caribbean integration, development options, evidenced by the history of such relations.

As Obama remarked, those contradictions will no longer manifest themselves in a cold war scenario, but, as many analysts have warned, the new war scenario will be as communicational, symbolic and cultural as no other before. However, no scenario should ignore the fact that the Cuban Revolution has its own goals and values. To forget them would be to condemn us to relive them.

Traducion: Jesus Bran

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