The Stars and Stripes on Havana’s Ocean Drive

Alfredo Prieto

The black earth turns green –Carlos Santana

US Secretary of State John Kerry with FM Bruno Rodriguez at the Cuban Foreign Ministry on August 14, 2015.  Photo:

HAVANA TIMES — The Star-Spangled Banner was finally raised at Havana’s Malecon ocean drive, against the blue disk of the sea and beneath a tropical sun that beat down on the glass-enclosed building on Calzada and L streets. A few weeks earlier, the Cuban flag had been raised in Washington, D.C., before a mansion not too far from the White House, a house first inhabited by a man surnamed Cespedes.

On August 14, several generations of Cubans, members of the émigré community and US citizens, were able to confirm that, among other things, politics is the art of making the impossible possible. Following eighteen months of secret negotiations with the Vatican and Canadians as backdrop, as well as several bilateral meetings at the US capital and Havana, it seems as though the knots of the Cold War are finally being untied. It is without a doubt a historical event, a time to address the points of agreement and the conflicting interpretations and points of view, a kind of political Rashomon on both shores of the Strait of Florida.

To begin with, Cuba looks on the normalization process as an acknowledgement of legitimacy on behalf of its interlocutor. Against all odds, and proving the predictions of a renowned Pulitzer winner and the enthusiastic supporters of the domino theory wrong, the Cuban government stood its ground and survived the fall of the gods. Since then, it has been adjusting its economic policies through a gradual and perhaps not sufficiently broad reform process which has nonetheless brought about a different reality.

In a brief span of time, it has implemented a series of changes and adopted a number of mechanisms it had long vilified, such as the free market and private initiative. It has also impelled two novel political initiatives: first, a migratory reform that grants Cubans the right to travel freely (regardless of whether the receiving country is willing to grant them entry visas or not) and, second, broader access to the Internet through Wi-Fi hot spots at more than thirty locations around the country, including such non-globalized places as Sancti Spiritus, Bayamo, Las Tunas and the Isle of Youth.

In Latin America, the isolation of Cuba is a thing of the past, at a time when left-wing governments, and even US sympathizers, are standing up to the northern giant to demand change – one of the most frequently repeated words, to be sure, during Obama’s presidential campaign.

The United States, on the other hand, perceives this rapprochement as a means of spreading allegedly universal values and ideas, on the assumption that Cuba’s current political system is undemocratic – part of a policy of engagement from which they do not expect immediate results but hope to see transformations in the mid to long term, as the island’s leadership begins to recede by dint of a pure, biological imperative.

Among both players, the first wave of Cuban émigrés (or what remains of them), and clones like Marco Rubio and sectors of the dissident movement agree with the Cuban government (in their own way) as regards the issue of legitimacy, and, for this reason, attack the Obama administration, vesting its Cuba policy with epithets that go from “shameful” to “betrayal,” a rather stable term in the imaginary of those who left Cuba long ago.

Evidently, such an interpretation of developments is blind to the fact that, for this policy, the most intelligent strategy is to use a Trojan horse to gradually erode what remains through exchange, remittances for the self-employed and relatives, trade, new technologies and US values.

To them, the Cuban government is ultimately the means, the instrument, by which they can reach the shore, which are the people, the individuals contained in that abstract category of “the people.” It is a policy based on the idea of soft power, that power which, according to Joseph S. Nye, consists in the “ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion,” appealing to the “attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals and policies,” that is to say, to the supposed superiority of the US political and cultural model in the era of globalization. However, the idea that the United States will always be a “champion of democracy,” announced before that deep blue sea, plainly falls apart (and not too subtly) in light of today’s harsh realities.

Cuban negotiators are very much aware of this, but they have accepted the change, convinced they are facing another type of challenge, and that they can move forward by appealing to the country’s independence and sovereignty, two central values of the island’s accumulated political culture. It is an expression of courage and pragmatism, features that also characterize the United States’ decision.

In this connection, the message from the United States is loud and clear: internal matters are not negotiable, an idea that John Kerry appears to support when he states that the future of Cuba must be decided by Cubans – a discursive move designed to please the hosts, but, deep down, sustained by the idea that the future does not in any way belong to what exists on the island today.

Cuban negotiators have strengths, but a number of weaknesses also. One the one hand, it is burdened by a scholastic, mechanical, memory-based educational system chockablock of stereotypes regarding Cuba-US relations. On the other, it faces the palpable de-politicization of key sectors of the population (the young, particularly those born in the 90s, are not the only ones, even though they are the most visible in the media).

The critical subject spoken of today is not, nor could it be, the spontaneous or immediate result of social developments. It is rather the outcome of an ideological and cultural process, one which may well have begun at the close of the 90s, at the time of the people-to-people policy begun by the Clinton administration. Many people in Cuba are also prepared for confrontation, many a time with simplistic representations of the impact that the normalization of relations will have on the nation’s economy and people’s lives.

Lastly, Cuban negotiators accept these changes knowing that there exists a traditional, hard-line sector that sees the notion of the enemy as one of the pillars of its legitimacy and part of the logic of the “besieged fortress.” They also carry no few reserves and a fair degree of mistrust, the natural outcome of a story that did not begin in 1959 but well before, something also inherent to those who support these new relations.

At any rate, yes, we can say a new era is beginning. The terms of the changes to come remain to be seen, at both ends.

11 thoughts on “The Stars and Stripes on Havana’s Ocean Drive

  • “oligarchy leadership of Cuba.”
    An oligarchy is a government by the rich.
    You probably meant to say the plutocratic -rule by the powerful- leadership of Cuba .
    The USA is an oligarchy because the leaders are legally bribed by the very wealthy of the country .
    Obviously Cuba has no wealth divide to compare with what exists in the USA .
    Once more you demonstrate your inability to articulate a cogent argument on your behalf or to display any knowledge as to what comprises the socio-political systems under discussion .
    You’re a waste of oxygen.

  • No, “Castros” refers to the oligarchy leadership of Cuba.

  • Could you please repeat your use of the term for me.
    Thank you.
    I forgot both that explanation and my response.
    You can do a quick version.
    I’m thinking it is likely that by including Fidel in the present Cuban leadership you are referring to his influence in the minds of most Cubans over the years through his inculcating of revolutionary/counter imperial thinking which is why they have not succumbed to U.S. aggression.
    is/was that it ?
    If so,then I agree with you.

  • Amen!

  • Don’t be daft. I have explained my use of the term “Castros”. Move on.

  • Point:
    “The same Nobel award so coveted by Fidel that he will never receive nonetheless is a motivating factor in the US rescuing Castro from the economic abyss.”
    “Fidel no longer is involved in government affairs in Cuba.”

    Response :
    ” Thank God for that”
    It would appear to the inexperienced that you have finally accepted Fidel’s resignation as fact but it is my very well educated guess that you’ll be talking about “the Castros” ruining Cuba within a day or so .
    You have never been able to accurately remember much about the past and I fully expect that the admission on your part was a drunken misstatement that you’ll never again repeat until Fidel actually dies.
    Even then I’m sure you’ll claim he’s speaking to Raul from the great beyond to help run things

  • Thank God for that!

  • Fidel no longer is involved in government affairs in Cuba.

  • Thanks for a very well written piece.
    Since the embargo succeeded in part one of its Embargo War : the immiseration of the entire Cuban population but failed in its final objective: the rising up of the Cuban people to overthrow their government and end the U.S. inflicted misery,
    the Empire had no other course but to open travel and hope for that “attraction” for the U.S. systems to do the job the embargo couldn’t.
    Anyone who says this is about U.S.G. concern for human rights and democracy in Cuba is either a disingenuous stooge for the empire or IMO, incredibly ignorant of the past 100 years of U.S. imperial policies.

  • If after 56 years, under Obama’s leadership, the US can PUBLICLY admit that the prior US embargo policy did not work to bring democracy to Cuba, isn’t it about time that the Castros come clean PUBLICLY and admit that the government they have maintained by force over the same period of time is anything but democratic? Fidel himself is quoted as saying “What’s so wrong with a dictatorship?”. The writer of this post obviously sees Cuban negotiators as equal players. Really? What consequences would have befallen the American people and our economy had negotiations broken down and the status quo maintained? There is no upside for Americans other than yet another Caribbean holiday destination to compete with Jamaica and Cancun. National economists are not revising national output statistics based upon opening trade with Cuba. Cuba’s “power” rests with Obama’s desire to cement his legacy and live up to his once undeserved Nobel Peace prize. Ironic isn’t it? The same Nobel award so coveted by Fidel that he will never receive nonetheless is a motivating factor in the US rescuing Castro from the economic abyss.

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