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Promotion of the Political Opening in Cuba

March 4, 2021

The return of politics

The failure of tough policies, already anticipated in Cuba and then in Venezuela, reinforces the return to a policy strategy, now with Joe Biden. If the hawks criticized Obama's policy for its apparent lack of results, now the doves are in a position to ask the same questions in the face of the same reality. Neither Venezuela nor Cuba is any closer to a return to democracy, each with its own specificities and contexts, than they were in January 2017 when Trump came to power.
By Manuel Cuesta Morúa

Raúl Castro - Barack Obama

The combination of the Cold War, North-South differences, and conflicts of nationalist perception marked the scenario of extremely tense non-relation between Cuba and the United States between 1961 and 2014. These three related vortices limited the options for Cuban society. Then, politics returned.

In December of that year, diplomatic ties at the embassy level between the two countries were re-established, a process as we know today promoted by former President Barack Obama. Consequently, the usual verbal threats of mutual destruction gave way to rational disputes of discordant values and interests in a scenario of mutual recognition, all of which constitute part of politics.

From that moment on, two realities disappeared: the American siege of the plaza and the Cuban final solution. Both sides froze the capacity of movement for all kinds of actors and interests, old and new, that emerged on both sides of the Florida Straits and that were pressing in any possible way to de-dramatize a costly conflict that was ridiculously virulent by the beginning of the 21st century already.

Ending the status quo of the war left only one loser: Havana. On the other hand, the language of politics through diplomacy, the confrontation with reality rather than ideology, brought two winners: the U.S. government and Cuban society.

Within Cuba, the dissolution of the status quo was expressed quite symbolically in the divergent behavior of the government and society in the face of Obama's visit. While Havana residents rushed to see “the Beast” (as they call the presidential limousine used by U.S. presidents), Fidel Castro prepared one of his famous Reflections. This particular one, very intuitive, warned of the dangers of certain embraces, thereby rejecting in advance any offer from the United States.

These two developments showed, on the one hand, an old Cuban fracture, overlapped by the old conflict between States and, on the other, its possible intensification if two or three of the lines unilaterally opened by the U.S. government were stabilized.

Even before landing in Havana, Obama had already taken some key political steps. The number of remittances that Cubans could send to their relatives in Cuba was liberalized, and American travel to Cuba encouraged, hotel companies were authorized to establish businesses on the island, people-to-people exchange programs were launched, and possibilities for the incipient private sector were broadened. Two other steps marked the strategic relevance of the opening: the granting of open visas to Cubans, which blurred the separation of families and reestablished a post-ideological social dynamic and flow, and the removal of Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.

However, two contrary Cuban responses reach Obama's outstretched hand: a full reception by the society and rejection by the State. What society understood as openness, the government assumed only as recognition, or normalization, not so much of the relations between the two governments, but of the conflict between the two countries. If the world has already understood the conflict between Cuba and the United States as something normal, what the Cuban government now aspired to was that the United States would also assume it as such, but within a normal framework of diplomatic relations. Doesn't the United States have conflicts with China, while maintaining normal diplomatic and commercial relations? The Cuban government was seeking for itself the status of China or Vietnam without Obama's political agenda.

The rejection of Obama’s agenda is what explains the success of the new U.S. strategy. Even if this strategy had not contemplated the issues of human rights and democratization. It did address them, albeit on a less visible level.

The administration of Donald Trump unraveled this scenario returning to the old three-part vortex of relations between Cuba and the United States, where policy options disappear. The cocktail of tough language, redoubling of sanctions, and promises of external redemption returned with force to cover a decades-long appearance of a failed pretense: that punishment equals strategy.

Trump failed, among many other things, because he was the least consistent and congruent of the tough politicians regarding the values of democracy. To begin with, America First was the alternative right's update of the old, traditional American isolationism that is not compatible with the idealism needed to advance democratic values on a global scale.

The failure of tough policies, already anticipated in Cuba and then in Venezuela, reinforces the return to a policy strategy, now with Joe Biden. If the hawks criticized Obama's policy for its apparent lack of results, now the doves are in a position to ask the same questions in the face of the same reality. Neither Venezuela nor Cuba is any closer to a return to democracy, each with its own specificities and contexts, than they were in January 2017 when Trump came to power. In comparative terms there is even a paradox: both societies are more ready to assume democratic values when their governments are stronger to repress them.

This analysis leads to the comparison of soft and hard politics based on the strategic quality of their bets. The external indicator of this quality does not lie in the economic damage that the policies of isolation, harassment, and demolition may cause to autocratic or dictatorial elites (damage that they do cause) but which of the two options causes more strategic nervousness among them, given constant economic conditions. Furthermore, there is an added and derivative element: which of them strengthens more the control of and over the decisive factors of power that allow for a transition to, or recovery of, democracy.

Now Biden will not only change the hardline towards Cuba to distance himself from Trump, but because of a bipartisan strategic decision that was made since the times of Obama, when Biden was vice president, and that all the factors of power in the United States assumed as lines of continuity once Obama left power. For the Democrats with Hillary Clinton if she won, but for all but a few powerful groups among Cuban-Americans in Florida, regardless of who won. Trump was not a Republican surprise, but a surprise for the Republicans. And for the rest of the world, of course.

Returning to the soft line implies taking Cuba off the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. The Cuban government protects terrorists, but it is in no position, neither physically nor strategically, to sponsor terrorism as it did in the past. Today, it destabilizes by other means wherever possible.

A soft line would also imply a return to pre-Trump policies: remittance transfers, travel, the full reestablishment of the embassy in Havana, and strengthened cooperation in other areas of border interests.

Contrary to the hardline, a return to politics also means learning from experience in a new context. Cuba's recent economic liberalization is less structural and more about alleviating the burden of state responsibilities. It is not designed to modernize and empower small and medium enterprises, but to lighten the heavy agenda of alleged social satisfaction. The State, however, wants to be the intermediary in the economic transactions of small and medium enterprises that wish to import or export abroad.

The opportunity lost with Obama to boost economic relations between the two countries will be a lesson learned for Biden when it comes to assessing Havana's true intentions for normalization. The only economic relationship that under the current conditions must necessarily pass through the Cuban State is the commercial one, not to export, but to import mainly goods from large U.S. manufacturing companies. The productive economic relationship between U.S. companies and potential Cuban companies is naturally between small and medium-sized enterprises, in the economy of goods, but essentially in the economy of services. And that is the economy prohibited in Havana's recent economic index. This alone will and should produce caution in Biden's specific policy toward Cuba, with a major emphasis on a thorough liberalization of the economy if the Cuban government really wants to move in the right direction.

Now, Biden may act regardless of the Florida electorate, but still with Florida in mind. He might not be immediately committed to Cuban Americans, but there is the strategic need to win Florida for the Democratic Party for future elections. And this is where the democratic agenda towards Cuba comes in. Not the strategy, but an agenda of engagement with Cuban democrats on the island.

Although lifting the embargo is part of the strategy, there is no real possibility for that to happen this term. Biden enters the presidency with a compelling need to reinforce the pro-democracy narrative and actions both inside and outside the United States. Even if lifting the embargo is, in my view, a smart policy to overwhelm the Cuban government, there are zero chances for this to happen. Not today, as democratic politics is being played in a highly symbolic manner. I do not believe that the United States will appear to be making gratuitous concessions to the incompetent autocrats in Havana.

What should and can be redoubled is the support and visibility of Cuban democrats. After and thanks to Obama's policy, we enjoy more legitimacy inside Cuba because he achieved what I believe is fundamental: that Cubans discover the enemies of their progress in their own house. Biden, with the return of this policy, can reinforce that legitimacy. Everything else will pass through our own house.

Manuel Cuesta Morúa
Manuel Cuesta Morúa
Historiador, politólogo y ensayista. Portavoz del Partido Arco Progresista, Ha escrito numerosos ensayos y artículos, y publicado en varias revistas cubanas y extranjeras, además de participar en eventos nacionales e internacionales. En 2016 recibió el Premio Ion Ratiu que otorga el Woodrow Wilson Center.