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 April 6 2016
On the subject of Obama's policy after his last campaign speech, when he said “I would negotiate with Cuba but I will not lift the blockade”, nothing has changed. This policy is still managing the blockade “dividing it in two”; with one hand manipulating the blockade to benefit that part of civil society which interests him and with the other, managing relations with the Cuban state. As a result, there do not seem to be any changes in that respect.
The President of the United States at last got his wish to visit us before the end of his mandate. Of course, the visit had to be now so that he could, in situ, perfect the policy he has been implementing since 2009. Obama had to see for himself the implications of continuing with attempts to implement a subversive policy towards Cuba.
The visit was preceded by the 15 March measures announced by the Treasury Department. This is the fourth packet of measures which Obama, using his prerogative, is implementing to manipulate the variables as best suits him. In order to shore up a middle class amongst whose members, according to his plans, he should be able to find political actors to work with him [to bring about] the changes he wants for Cuba. All the measures adopted are still unilateral. Up until now, Cuba has received no clear benefit from them. It can neither import nor export, accept US investment, and it is still not clear if it can use the US dollar, the ban on US citizens coming to Cuba as tourists has not been lifted, it cannot invest in the US economy and receives no preferential treatment, etc.
There will be more trips, more spaces for US citizens to visit Cuba, Cubans will get more visas, a direct postal service, more remittances, more commercial flights, more cultural and academic exchanges, more money for joint projects, more “people to people” exchanges, more visits from both parties. In other words, much more contact between the two societies but the Cuban economy will still not have the credit arrangements which would allow Cuba to export its products, to import, obtain commercial loans, receive investments from the United States, freely convert its currency with the dollar, etc.
These March 15 measures, so it seems, put an end to the famous “Black list” and there's talk of the possibility of Cuba being able to use the dollar. Also with respect for the Cuba state, , supposedly. But it is not clear how that will happen, therefore Minister Bruno Rodriguez has put on hold [the decision of] whether or not to remove the 10% interest that penalizes the dollar in Cuba. Nor do we know how the measure that any run-of-the-mill Cuban can have an account in dollars in a US bank will be implemented; nor how those famous credits will be granted. Everything seems to indicate that, like in an old Brazilian soap opera, everything will come under Landowner Malta's slogan: “Only I can touch”. It also appears that US banks will be the only ones that can continue handling the US dollar since, it seems, the “Sword of Damocles” will continue to hang over any transnational bank which dares to use dollars in financial negotiations with Cuba. As of now, nothing is clear and we must remain watchful to see what will actually happen.
As for the “Black List” everything seems to indicate that US ships bringing goods to Cuba will not be on it but there's nothing about whether other ships can transport cargo here, nor whether Cuban ships can carry US goods to Cuba. This makes us wonder what kind of trade the United States wants to allow private property owners in Cuba to have.
In a recent article, before this visit, I said that Mr. President had two alternatives: either to continue handling things, putting more emphasis on subversive intentions and “regime change” in spite of having declared, on several occasions, he was not a fan of this alternative, or to continue the beginning of the process of normalizing relations between the two countries.
In fact, Obama has not applied either of the two alternatives separately. What he has done is to offer a more sophisticated combination of both, supported by a discourse that is even more sophisticated. The president has introduced himself to us as a pacifist and given us a brilliant speech in which he disguises himself as Little Red Riding Hood and during which only a faint shadow of the wolf pops up now and again. It is, in fact, the best speech which Obama has given to refer to relations with Cuba, characterized up until now by unconcealed arrogance. He had never given such a conciliatory speech about Cuba, full of praise about Cubans in Cuba and their achievements, offering an olive branch, putting us on equal footing with the values of the US people and of the Cubans who live over there.
Of course, he lost no time in pointing out the differences which separate Cuban society from the United States: the Cuban one-party system as opposed to the US democratic multi-party system; a free market economy as opposed to Cuba's state controlled economy, etc. And then at the end he said, almost ironically, that in spite of everything he was willing to overlook these differences and try to maintain good relations with Cuba. As if it were a matter of being willing to forgive us our defects.
The president did not choose either of the two alternatives, he kept up his double game; he asphyxiates us with one hand and indirectly offers relief with the other. Because it has to be said that, in fact, any measure which could benefit civil society, “empower” it as he puts it, even if it is done unilaterally for his chosen sector, is, in any case beneficial for Cuba. Cuba would ultimately benefit from that.
So, Obama's visit to Cuba has been a success. Both for Cuba and for the United States.
- Because it is the first visit to Cuba by a sitting president of the United States and intended to negotiate with Cuba.
- Because, in fact, Obama has been the US president who has done the most to change relations with Cuba.
- Because it is easier to negotiate with an intelligent and informed president.
- Because the fact of having set foot on Cuban soil could give him more objectivity in his relations with us.
- Because any policy based on long distance perceptions can be extremely dangerous.
Nevertheless, it is not possible to draw the conclusion from Obama's visit to Cuba that he has given up his supreme strategic interest of controlling Cuba once again. It cannot be said that Obama's visit will have any effect on a change in strategic policy toward the island. Their strategy remains the same.
I think that the biggest gain from this visit is that the president is more cognisant of Cuban reality and of Cuba's intention to defend its sovereignty and independence, even when this can be very difficult to do. Moreover, his visit to Argentina will surely allow the president to compare both places.
I don't think that he has felt calmer, during all his term of office, than he felt during his time in Cuba. Safer, freer to do what he wished, less worried about the safety of his family and his own. He could easily have given his personal bodyguard a holiday. And for that alone he will remember his visit to Cuba with pleasure. Because the president represents the Empire his interests are opposed to those of Cuba but he is above all else a human being.
Traducción: Janet Duckworth