HAVANA TIMES — The news is going around the world: US President Barack Obama has realized that changes are taking place in Cuba and, in response to this, he wishes to “update” the country’s policy towards Havana, which practically hasn’t changed since the 60s.
His advisors have finally realized that, in Cuba, political prisoners have been released, cultivable lands are being distributed among farmers, laws authorizing self-employment and small enterprises have been passed, a measure of access to the Internet and hotels has been made available and people are now entitled to buy houses and travel abroad.
Obama says that, now, they must “be creative” and “continue to update our policies,” a veritable change of course for a president who, during his electoral campaign, thought the economic embargo would be the magic lever that would allow the United States to move Cuba.
The basic elements of US strategy vis-a-vis Cuba were defined at the beginning of the 60s, in a State Department document that proposed spreading hunger, poverty and despair among Cubans so that these would rebel and overthrow the revolutionary leadership.
Obama has done the math and concluded that: “Keep in mind that when Castro came to power I was just born, so the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow be effective today in the age of the Internet, Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.”
In fact, the strategy wasn’t even very effective when first implemented. On the contrary, the United States’ aggressiveness transformed Fidel Castro into the defender of Cuba’s national sovereignty and helped him unite the vast majority of Cubans under that banner.
It took ten administrations applying this policy and obtaining exactly the same results for a US president to openly recognize that the strategy has become obsolete and must be modified if one wishes to have any degree of success.
At any rate, former Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray stresses that it is important for Obama to “publicly declare that changes are happening in Cuba,” because this “contradicts the statements of the extreme right and of dissidents like Guillermo Fariñas and Berta Soler, who claim that nothing is really changing in Cuba.”
What’s truly curious is that the White House and Cuban government are using the same expressions. Neither uses the word “change”, they prefer to say they are “updating” their policies or models, in order not to discredit what they have done so far.
No one can know for sure whether the president’s statements will have any real consequences for bilateral relations between the countries or whether they are part of a rhetoric of goodwill without practical results, as was the case with Obama’s promise of shutting down the United States’ Guantanamo prison camp in Cuba’s easternmost province.
Whatever the case may be, the message prompted concerns among Cuban dissidents, who scrambled to ask the president not to be excluded from potential negotiations with the Cuban government. The fact of the matter is that Americans tend to go their way, and Cubans still remember how they once negotiated the island’s independence without their participation.
For now, those Cubans who can are rushing to obtain US residency, for it is rumored that, Obama’s political “updating” will include changes to the Cuban Adjustment Act, in response to Havana’s migratory reforms.
The situation, in which political asylum was granted to hundreds of thousands of people who later spent their vacation in the country that allegedly persecuted them, was scandalous enough, and now, to top things off, “exiles” can retain their Cuban residency, while still enjoying US residence rights.
Cuba’s laxer migratory legislation and the other reforms implemented by Raul Castro is dealing Washington’s Cuba policy some heavy blows. Both countries’ policies were a bit archaic, but it seems Havana got ahead of Washington in the “updating” process.
This is the reason analysts at the Cuba Study Group in Washington are advising Obama to “take bolder steps that break isolation, empower Cuba’s growing entrepreneurial class, and do away with counterproductive sanctions and designations that only represent obstacles to greater change on the island.”
A Cuban-American who met with Obama in Miami told me the president wants to make a change in the United States’ policy towards Cuba the legacy of his term in office, by approving measures such as the one that authorizes US citizens to travel to the island.
The president’s message, however, is encrypted and difficult to decipher. He meets with the most hardline anti-Castro circles and proclaims the need for a change in US policy towards Cuba, but is careful to avoid mentioning what elements of this policy he seeks to change.
In a way, while in Miami Obama said what everyone wanted to hear, and the ambiguity of his statements allowed him to collect money from both camps. At the close of his address, however, he acknowledged before his audience that “sometimes, politics seems dirty and ugly.”
(*) An HT translation of the original published in Spanish by BBC Mundo.