By Fernando Ravsberg*
HAVANA TIMES — The United States is about to re-open its embassy in Havana having been granted none of its demands: Cuba still has a socialist system governed by the Communist Party, dissidents continue to be outlawed, there are no multi-party elections, the bulk of the economy is State run and confiscated US properties have not been returned to their former owners.
In the words of Republican House Speaker John Boehner, “The Obama administration has handed the Castro regime a significant political win in return for nothing.” The question is: could Washington have gotten any concessions from Havana?
President Obama has demonstrated pragmatism by accepting the failure of the blockade on Cuba. However, once that is admitted, it is impossible to then sit down at the negotiations table to impose conditions on the island, something which also didn’t work at the end of the Vietnam War.
If US diplomats fleeing from Saigon offers us an image of the United States’ greatest military defeat, the reopening of the embassy on Havana’s Malecon ocean drive symbolizes the failure of Washington’s economic war against the Cuban revolution.
Both Vietnam and Cuba paid an extremely high human, material and social cost. It would have been deluded to expect otherwise from a conflict between two small and poor nations and the greatest technological, economic and military power of all time.
In Cuba, the plan was to bring about hunger, misery and despair to push people to overthrow the revolutionary government. In 1960, a partial embargo was decreed. In 1962, faced with Cuba’s unwillingness to budge, it was extended through a ban on the sale of food and medicine to the island.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States approved the Torricelli Act, which bars US subsidiaries in third countries from having business dealings with Cuba. In 1996, in the midst of a brutal economic crisis, they completed the fence with the Helms Burton Act, which applies sanctions on companies from other nations as well.
Cuba’s strategy was to hold its ground, turning the struggle against the blockade into a political banner to unite revolutionaries, marginalize the opposition and win over international allies. In addition, the blockade began to be accused of being the cause of all the country’s ills.
In the early years of the revolution, the United States set out to isolate Cuba internationally. Though they achieved this at first, the Cuban government gradually began to win over allies. Finally, Washington was left alone in its defense of the economic embargo on the island.
Latin America unanimously decided to invite Cuba to the 2015 Summit of the Americas and did so against the express will of the White House. Obama had two options: change his policy or walk away and leave the podium to Raul Castro in Panama.
Barack Obama was not “soft-handed”: he took the blockade to the extreme before proclaiming its failure. He even sanctioned companies that sold Cuba medical equipment and was the president who applied the largest number of fines on third country banks.
When he saw that the blockade was not brining Havana to its knees, however, he decided to forego a policy that was undermining US interests. He didn’t even have the support of his NATO allies, the European Union or Latin America.
Obama did not take this step without first gaging what internal repercussions it would have, uncertain whether most of the US and Cuban-American electorate would back him on it. That said, he prepared public opinion for the decision by skillfully using the media.
The US press agency AP was “leaked” information revealing the failure of USAID covert operations in Cuba, and The New York Times published a series of editorials preparing the terrain for the policy change vis-a-vis Havana.
Obama’s strategy was impeccable. A mere six months after making his conversations with Cuba public, and despite the war unleashed by Congress, polls reveal that 72% of US citizens support the new policy.
With such support behind them, the Democrats have nothing to fear. Their plan appears to be to erode the embargo until it has become an empty shell. All the while, the Republicans are fighting public opinion and the business community tooth and nail.
US citizens are already travelling to the island thanks to the fact their own government is allowing them to break the law that forbids tourism in Cuba. All the while, entrepreneurs are being encouraged to find the embargo’s legal loopholes to invest in and trade with Havana.
Obama has not been converted to socialism. What he’s doing is placing his country’s interests above those of the anti-Castro community, having already spent hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money to secure an endless catalogue of defeats.
The US president is proposing a different policy, an invasion of tourists and businesspeople that will gnaw at the foundations of the revolution. He is also doing this at a key moment, in the midst of a generational change in the government and Communist Party leadership.
It’s hard to predict whether this new strategy will prove more effective, but Barack Obama will be remembered as the first president who, with respect to Cuba, understood what Einstein meant when he said that, in order to get different results, one must do something different.
(*) Visit the website of Fernando Ravsberg.