By Alfredo Prieto*
HAVANA TIMES, Sept. 8 – Seen from here in Havana – or at least from the particular perspective of this Cuban citizen – the Obama policy toward Cuba resembles a leaky roof.
Its distinctive feature is not so much the newness, but rather the recycling of “Clinton era” positions rejected by the George W. Bush administration. However, Obama has possibly taken them further, like those in the area of telecommunications and cell telephones, for example – which Clintonism never reached.
Just a few months after entering the executive office, and in the context of last April’s Summit of the Americas, it was difficult to appear with empty hands before the rebellion of the grassroots presidents in the new Latin American political context.
Obama therefore announced a relaxation of sanctions against visits to the island for several categories of Cuban family members (including indirect relatives) and the amount of money that could be sent to kin. Both of these prerogatives had been severely restricted by the Bush administration in July 2004.
The president selectively implemented a group of recommendations generated by think tanks and liberal academic institutions that concurred on the need to gradually reverse the pendulum in the face of the US failure to achieve “national interest” through an embargo/blockade. Let’s review the timing.
This summer the administration gave the green light to visits to Cuba by several well-known Hollywood actors. Among them was Puerto Rican-born actor Benicio de la Toro, who received an award from the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) for his professional career and his portrayal of the guerilla fighter Ernesto Che Guevara in Steven Soderbergh’s two-part film about Che.
In July bilateral immigration talks were held, which had been unilaterally suspended by the previous US administration. The purpose of these was to ensure legal, safe and orderly migration – a national security problem for both countries. This dialogue, as expected was opposed by the Cuban-American ultra right.
Later, Latin pop singer Juanes’ announced a September 20th Havana concert – that fell like a bomb in the hardcore exile sectors of Miami-Dade – but received the tacit support of even Hillary Clinton and the US State Department, though without the corresponding olive branch.
Next to last was the visit by New Mexican Governor Bill Richardson, a resolved advocate of the “soft line,” who not only had the purpose of negotiating trade agreements for his state (one of the poorest in the Union), but also of approaching the question of cultural exchanges – another of the directions in which the Obama administration is moving.
(By the way, some press agencies inappropriately speak of “trade,” forgetting that official US policy does not contemplate a two-way street – but only in one direction – whereby Cuba will continue to be prohibited from selling its products to the US. Moreover, Cuba’s purchases of US products will be solely on a cash basis.)
The former Democratic Party presidential candidate explained that he did not come representing the current administration. This, however, didn’t prevent him from programmatically stating, “Many Americans think the embargo hasn’t worked,” to which he later added, “In one year the United States will be in serious negotiations on lifting the embargo.”
Regardless of whether such talks prove to be successful or not, they indicate the priority on the domestic agenda of not only public healthcare but also the immigration question as two of its most important issues for the administration.
The last in the sequence of developments was the announcement of talks set to begin on September 17 to restore direct US-Cuba mail services, suspended in 1963, and the implementation of Obama’s April promises regarding travel and remittances.
It may soon be possible to send packages that contain not only food and medicines – the only goods authorized to date – but also digital cameras, personal computers, televisions and radios, as long as those who receive them – like in the case of remittances – are not Communist Party or government officials.
This latter condition, though an impracticable ideologically-based constraint, is symbolically useful given the panorama of anti-Cuba elements in Miami and their counterparts in Washington DC.
Some say in the US that the embargo/blockade is like a piñata hanging from the ceiling, one which doesn’t have to be pulled down in a single jerk, but just taken apart piece by piece – today an arm, tomorrow a leg, later the head – until it finally falls from its own weight.
The question is usually more complex in that it always involves other factors, but Obama is circling around this position – more than what his opponents have wanted, less than what his supporters have hoped.
*Alfredo Prieto, managing editor of the Havana-based Temas Magazine.