Haroldo Dilla Alfonso
HAVANA TIMES — The re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States opens up a new chapter in the love-hate relationship the two countries have maintained for two centuries.
It is the type of political move in which everybody wins, or so political analysts tell us. In the short term, the term that calls for the 15 minutes of celebration we’re seeing, Cuba’s post-revolutionary elite has gained more than anyone, making a show of its brawn in a wrestling match in which, it is said, it has given nothing and gotten everything.
When the lights go out and the reveling ends, however, Cuban leaders will still shoulder the burden of their own ineptness and a very asymmetrical geopolitical relationship – and they will have to face up to the challenges stemming from what was, undoubtedly, a victory, as all triumphs bring new challenges with them in politics. On occasion, these challenges outweigh the success that precedes them.
This is not the case with the United States, for whom the issue of the blockade/embargo is absolutely secondary. Obama knows he will run into opposition and obstacles at every step – even to appoint an ambassador acceptable to all – but he also knows that he is the leader of a country that has more clients than it does friends. And Cuba could become a good client in terms of investment and trade if business opportunities on the island were broadened and if, in this new context, its government clearly expressed its willingness to satisfy legitimate demands stemming from the expropriations carried out during the 60s.
All the while, Cuba will continue to work with the United States in sensitive issues such as immigration, the environment and drug trafficking, as it has been doing with notable efficiency to date. At times, it has done so with more efficiency thaN other close-by allies of the United States.
This essential difference may account for the contrast between the two presidential addresses that announced the new agreement. Obama was relaxed, charismatic, argumentative and willing to acknowledge past errors. As they say in Cuba, he was very smooth. Cuba’s president, on the other hand, appeared in military fatigues, reading a document with the same tone with which he addresses his troops at El Cacahual, without showing the slightest indication that he wanted to fix anything. He looked scared, and he probably was, as this is a huge change for Cuba. As they also say in Cuba, he was very hard-line, finishing this off as in a more recent address, in which he unearthed the emblematic slogan of a tired old rhetoric: “homeland or death, we will prevail!”
The story is complicated. The Cuban government laughed at the blockade/embargo while it enjoyed foreign aid that guaranteed its survival. That is why Fidel Castro – who is not mentally equipped to employ any strategy other than conflict – was able to kick Carter in the face and later force Clinton to sign the Helms-Burton act, and, quite simply, to continue governing by making the economy dependent on subsidies (Soviet or Venezuelan) and daily life on the ration booklet.
If the past fifty years have proven anything, however, is that development in Cuba cannot be reached in a context of hostility towards such an overwhelmingly powerful neighbor, and without access to its market. This is something common Cubans everywhere learned “in the flesh.” The Cuban military and their technocrats have also come to understand this, which is why the main economic plans meant to serve as the island’s launching pad make their viability dependent on that relationship. The economic complex surrounding the Mariel port, and all tourist infrastructure built on the Havana-Matanzas coastline (the pillars of Cuba’s economic recovery), have been developed with an eye to the north, where, incidentally, the most economically and demographically active community in Cuba’s transnational society resides: the island’s émigrés. Despite being a declared champion of Third World development, Havana looks insistently north.
To sum up, the end of the embargo and the normalization of relations with the United States will not, in an of themselves, solve any of the many, pressing problems faced by Cuban society today, to the extent that these problems do not stem from the blockade, as one often hears solidarity groups parrot. They stem, rather, from complex situations, in which differences with the United States have some weight but are subordinate to the patent inability of Cuba’s current political elite in terms of creating a dynamic economic environment, ensuring social equity and building a democratic political system. The normalization of relations will, however, create a context more favorable to the search of solutions to these problems.
In the political arena – where Cuban leaders refuse to consider any type of political changes, believing they are the architects of the world’s most democratic system – the normalization of relations with the United States will result in a context different from the “fortress under siege” in which all dissidents were considered traitors (and punished with imprisonment or banishment). The Cuban government will have to moderate the use of its last rhetorical recourse – intransigent nationalism, in defiance of an imagined imperialist threat – and, as the restrictions stemming from the blockade are relaxed, it will also have to look for excuses for the country’s economic disaster elsewhere. Cuban society will also invariably have more access to information and contacts, and the spectrum of the system’s opposition could gain in opportunities to express its opinions and act without being portrayed as an agent of a vanishing enemy.
There are many reasons to welcome the re-establishment of relations between Cuba and the United States. The US government is to be commended for having recognized that the policy of hostility failed in many ways and that a new approach is needed. It is also laudable that General Raul Castro has decided to put aside the disastrous policies of his brother and come to realize that relations with the United States are crucial to the island’s future. We can allow ourselves the luxury of imagining, now that the “imperialist threat” is retreating a fair distance, that Cuba’s post-revolutionary elite will finally become aware that the country belongs to everyone and that it is up to everyone – no matter what their ideological preferences or political affiliations – to decide.