Osmel Ramirez Alvarez
HAVANA TIMES — The simultaneous declarations made by Raul Castro and Barack Obama on December 17, 2014, announcing the exchange of prisoners and the two countries’ intentions of normalizing bilateral relations, came as a huge surprise to most. Our people – and the entire world – celebrate this development with much enthusiasm.
As poverty in Cuba is blamed on the blockade, many even believed that the country’s situation would improve immediately. But the blockade cannot be lifted so quickly, and Cuba’s economy won’t develop of a sudden. We have only just begun down a promising road.
Obama had to be very daring, but his decision was no doubt wise. It was his opportunity to leave behind a regional legacy and to be remembered as more than the first black president of the United States. He is facing powerful forces, but his articulate speeches and political dexterity promise favorable developments.
Here, in Cuba, he is criticized on a daily basis because he could do more and because the laws that have not yet been repealed are still effective. But only he knows the burden he shoulders and how quickly he makes use of his faculties without affecting his administration or party, as the elections near. That is nature of politics.
At any rate, the embargo’s days are probably numbered. The talks about different issues of bilateral interest and the reopening of the two embassies were positive steps. Two countries that are so close geographically should not be enemies. Differences will always exist and many are root differences: in size, language, culture and wealth.
The Cuban government has its demands: an end to the embargo and the Cuban Adjustment Act, the return of Guantanamo, reparations for the damage caused by the embargo, an end to illegal broadcasts and financing for opposition groups.
The United States, on the other hand, makes no demands. It merely waits for Congress to repeal the embargo legislation and defends postures regarding Cuban civil society, the opposition, democracy, the private sector, control over Guantanamo and the continued application of the Cuban Adjustment Act.
We must bear in mind something very important: Obama is the president of at least 3 million Cubans and their descendants living in the United States. In any negotiation, his government does not only represent Americans but also that important sector of Cubans, which has its own specific interests.
Raul Castro, on the other hand, is only the president of the 11 million Cubans on the island. He does not represent emigres and his leadership is entirely de facto. His government has never been legitimated by popular vote. I speak of government and legitimacy not as tangents that distance me from the subject at hand. Everything is intimately connected.
In Cuba, for instance, a great many Cubans still wish to leave the country. There are very few opportunities at hand and little hope. However, the government continues to demand the repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act. If the demand is met, Cubans who emigrate through informal channels will do so furtively, like all other Latin Americans. They will be badly-paid illegals trying to avoid “la migra.”
If they had to secure people’s votes, they would not make such a proposal, which seeks only a political victory for Cuba’s leaders. Any president in the region would go down in history if they were able to negotiate an agreement that affords their citizens legal status in the United States. Cuba already enjoys such a privilege, and the government wants it removed.
Abroad, it is believed that foreign investment will benefit Cubans in terms of salaries. This is false. Foreigners have hard currency salaries, but those born in Cuba work under a State employment agency that takes the money and exchanges it at a 2 to 1 rate, a mere 8% of the official exchange rate. That is to say, it pockets 92% of this money.
Draw your own conclusions, as a renowned Cuban journalist says. It is no accident that Obama wants to redirect financing to the island’s fledgling private sector.
What Latin American government would be upset if the United States offered financing to its private sector and encouraged the growth of small and mid-sized enterprises? However, Raul Castro wants all financing for the State and considers the growth of those sectors not under its supervision a threat. The political interests of a caste prevail once again.
Cuba of course wants to recover the territory occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base. But it has been occupied for over a century and abandoned lands and bay areas is what Cuba has plenty of. The marabou brush that spread across our fields and the swamps that do not allow us to grow crops are worse. How can we postpone addressing immediate economic problems to settle an old moral quarrel?
The struggle to have that territory returned to Cuba is a long one. An intelligent and beneficial proposal would be the creation of a special development zone. If US companies are offered preferential treatment, these will pressure their government to take the deal. A military enclave means spending, a free trade zone means revenues. They would no doubt do the math.
Negotiating with dignity is a basic principle, but so is doing this with intelligence. Those issues that stand in the way of understanding should not be unconditional, even if they are on the table.
On the other hand, Cuba needs the end of the blockade as much as a change of its political and economic system. A congress of all Cuban organizations, both at home and abroad, would prove useful, as would a demand for a referendum that consults all Cubans about their political destiny.
If they wish for things to remain as they are, if they want representative democracy or if they seek some form of democratic socialism, this is what the people ought to be able to decide.
To attack the revolution with hatred and ask for its destruction is not the same thing as demanding the right to be respected as an adversary. Negotiations with the United States are promising, but they need to be complemented this way.
It is difficult to achieve a consensus among groups that are radical, but the country needs this. Let us be in step with these times of important developments, let us do everything in our power for a Cuba that continues to suffer!
Photos: Juan Suarez