HAVANA TIMES — I was interviewing medical doctors about to leave for Brazil when my office phoned me to tell me Alan Gross had been released from prison and was flying back to his country. I assumed Cuba’s three agents [of the Cuban Five], imprisoned in the US, had also been released and that they would soon be back in Cuba.
Minutes later, they announced that Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama would make statements at noon. They didn’t offer any further details, but, a month before, Cuba’s foreign ministry had granted me an interview and explained to me they were in negotiations with the United States.
That 17th of December of 2014 raised many hopes, but the “normalization” process made slow progress. The reopening of embassies was chiefly symbolic, as interest sections with the same functions as embassies were already operating in the two countries.
Obama offered US citizens 12 lies to justify travel to Cuba and skirt restrictions on tourism on the island. This mechanism, however, makes for slow growth: less than 150,000 US tourists visit the country, which welcomes over three million people every year.
The embargo/blockade still stands, holding back US entrepreneurs, the only ones barred from trading with Cuba. This problem will be difficult to overcome because it depends on the will of Congress, not the president.
At any rate, there are still many prerogatives the president can use. The most significant move would be to authorize the use of US dollars in commercial transactions, a prohibition which makes business dealings more expensive for Cuba and is enforced through the application of billion-dollar fines on banks in third countries.
Despite the obstacles, Barack Obama’s public opposition to the embargo has undermined its extra-territorial effects. Businesspeople in third countries consider that they can begin to invest in Cuba without fear of reprisals from Washington.
Ironically, the “normalization” of relations is not benefitting US companies but those of third countries, which see an opportunity to find a niche in the Cuban market, where they don’t have to compete with the world’s greatest economic power.
This past year demonstrated that the embargo is much more than a bilateral issue. No sooner had Obama suggested its elimination than business delegations, trade offers and credits from around the world arrived at the island en masse, even from countries that have no relations with Cuba.
It’s a big wave of interest, but relatively little business has actually materialized in the course of the year. Some Cuban economists are wondering whether the country “is taking full advantage of the opportunities afforded by the moment, because the interest won’t be there forever.”
The Mariel port continues to be surrounded by green areas. A reader told us that “last Friday, I attended a tour of the Mariel Special Development Zone offered by a government official, and the only thing they had to show for after two years were the foundations. They haven’t even finished building the administrative building.”
Internally, Cuba faces a powerful paralysis. Not a single cooperative was authorized in 2015, no new self-employment categories were approved, wholesale markets continued to be conspicuously absent and the much awaited elimination of the two-currency system has not yet seen the light of day.
Travel restrictions applied on medical specialists was, for many Cubans, a step backward and proof, if needed, that reforms can be reverted. This has been the biggest fear harbored by citizens who over the years have seen more than one liberalizing measure taken back.
Politically, we are seeing a “witch hunt” which reflects fears prompted by Washington’s new strategy. Receiving foreign money to pay for a plane ticket, offer a lecture, write an article or organize an event immediately makes you are suspect.
Uncertainty surrounding the future of the reforms, internal ideological rigidity and the fear that Washington will eliminate the Cuban Adjustment Act are the basic ingredients which, in 2015, impelled tens of thousands of people to immigrate to the United States through any means possible.
Next year will be decisive for both governments. Obama must take more determined steps if he doesn’t want his replacement to undo his “legacy.” He can do it: the majority of the electorate, the bulk of US businesspeople and even the Cuban-American community would support him.
For Raul Castro, 2016 will be vital: he will take part in the last Congress of the Communist Party before his retirement. If a clear position regarding the direction and pace of the reforms doesn’t emerge from that congress, the leadership will pass on a “hot potato” to those who come afterwards.
Any radical change to the model will be more difficult to make by the successors. “The historical leadership” aren’t only the founding fathers of the revolution, they are also the creators of the model, and both these things give them the political authority to change things.
If Obama’s legacy is to be the rapprochement with Havana, Raul Castro’s are reforms aimed at creating a sustainable and prosperous economic model. The difference is that, in Cuba’s case, the very fate of the revolution depends on this legacy.