Obama’s State of the Union

Graham Sowa

 Beach near the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) on the outskirts of Havana.
Beach near the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) on the outskirts of Havana.

When the Obama administration repealed some of the restrictions of the US travel ban I was surprised, and, dare I say, a bit hopeful.  Considering the State of the Union was a week away, I thought that perhaps the subject of the longstanding blockade of Cuba by the United States might make its way into President Obama’s address to the nation.  It was not to be.  However, we can still find some shared space between the two neighbors.  And maybe some lessons as well.

As I read through the State of the Union I noticed I had already scrolled through 2/3 of the speech before President Obama even began talking about foreign policy.  He touched on the security of the United States with references to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as curtailing the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

I think that the first link between the State of the Union and Cuba would have to be the recently expressed worries on the part of both countries leadership about nuclear weapons proliferation.  Perhaps these governments would be wise to water this patch of common ground.  Especially considering their near first-hand experience in atomic warfare in the fall of 1962.

But there was another obvious link between President Obama’s speech content and recent changes to Cuban policy: the domestic economy.  In both instances there seems to be a top-down approach with the goal to open grassroots space for new small businesses.  But it seems the link ends there; besides “small business” is a completely relative term in each country.

 At the Cathedral Plaza in Old Havana.
At the Cathedral Plaza in Old Havana.

President Obama is talking about extending 30 billion USD worth of loans to small businesses and offering tax incentives to businesses that hire more workers or raise salaries.  On the other hand the Cubans are just going through the teething phases of their brand of small business tax reality.

On Wednesday the mid-day TV news in Havana had a story in which Cubans working in their own small businesses were talking about the cost of taxes, paying retail space fees, and now social security payments.  They say these costs of doing business are making it difficult to stay in business.  How soon until we see tax incentives in Villa Clara, Holguin, and Havana?  I guess that depends on the bubble.

In his address to the United States, President Obama quoted an unknown source and called the 2000’s the “lost decade” because of the global recession.  Now, I’m hesitant to classify any decade as “lost” just because of financial downturn.  This seems to be an implicit disregard for the lives that were lived and lost during that time.

However, I’m sure President Obama did not mean his words in that way.  He meant it in terms of the financial success of the American people, and how their government and institutions failed them during this time.  How the “bubble” that had been inflated by these same institutions burst, and in a moment it was all gone.

So what of Cuba’s experience in the past with “bubbles”?  During the Cold War I would have to go with the colloquial of the period and call the Soviet Union’s support of the island the “iron bubble”.  But then again iron doesn’t burst, it rusts.  Well, that could be very fitting anyway.

If there was going to be another bubble in Cuba I could guess it might have something to do with Venezuela.  But after the experience with the Soviet Union we should hope that lessons have been learned.  And with Cuba’s expanded foray into small business let’s hope they take a lesson from our burst bubbles as well.

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Graham Sowa: I've been living in Cuba for three years now. I would like to blame my obvious hair loss seen in this updated photo on the rigors of life here and medical school, but it is probably just genetic. I've made some of the strongest friendships during my time in Cuba from other writers on this website. The strength of those friendships has almost restored my faith that the online world can lead to offline and real life change. On that same note I've adjusted to using internet one or two hours a month. In the meantime I have rediscovered things like flipping through the pages of books, writing stuff down by hand, and having to admit that I don't know something instead of rapidly looking up the answer on Google while the teacher isn't looking.

Graham has 89 posts and counting. See all posts by Graham

One thought on “Obama’s State of the Union

  • Graham,
    Obama and the United States are caught in a bind as regards U.S Cuba policy.
    The long running anti-socialist foreign policy that began with the U.S-European invasion of the nascent Soviet Union in 1918 and continues to this day in the form of the blockade /terrorist/biological warfare/propaganda war against Cuba’s socialist economy is running smack into the desire of the U.S business community to tap into the Cuban market and the desire of the new generation of Florida Cubans to reunite with their friends and relatives in Cuba.

    The reason Obama is making such small steps toward normalization is testament toward the fear that a successful socialist economy would have in the region . It is no secret that the counter revolutionary U.S. policy is intended to hurt the average Cuban to the point that they will rise up, overthrow the government and move back into capitalism opening the Cuban economy to exploitation once more. This would end the threat of the good example Cuba was, is and could be in the future.

    Obama also has to appease the large Cuban voting community in Florida if to a lesser extent than needed some years ago as the old Batista and Playa Giron veterans die-hards die off and a new generation comes in.

    As to the Cuban move into allowing small business to operate independent of government control and the hardships created by taxes, rents etc, Cubans should take a good look at how many small businesses are going out of business in the United States due to unpayable high health care insurance costs, the general worldwide recession and the globalization of capitalism that has become a race to the bottom as far as wages for the workers is concerned. The official unemployment rate in the U.S. is about 10% but the actual unemployment figure that includes , underemployment (people working part-time who need the pay of a full time job) and those who have run out of unemployment benefits and who are not counted in the official figure is closer to 20% and in the black and Hispanic populations in some poor inner cities, the unemployment rate skies to 40%.

    The vaunted golden opportunities of the wealthy United States are not opportunities for all.
    With a few percent of the richest people controlling some 80% of the wealth of the U.S. , there simply is not enough left to provide a decent life for all and the government which is owned (through legal bribery called campaign contributions) by the wealthy and the corporations is not about to remedy the plight of the 25% who love in poverty and without hope of a job that pays a living wage.

    That includes President Obama from whom so many expected so much and who turned out to be nothing better than any of his predecessors. This should come as no surprise because neither of the twin parties of capitalism; the Democrats or the Republicans who nominate every candidate from top to bottom in the government would ever nominate anyone who would change the status quo that so benefits those at the top of U.S society. They are adequately bribed and or blackmailed to do what they always do; support the status quo.


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