Like Havana, Washington acts in accordance with its interests: maintaining social and political stability.
By Alejandro Armengol
HAVANA TIMES — The Starwood hotel chain is the first US company to sign an agreement with Cuban authorities since the revolution of 1959. It’s possible the enterprise will soon be bought by a Chinese investor.
This was not done on instructions from the Chinese Communist Party. The operation isn’t part of any Five Year Plan. It doesn’t stem from any ideological considerations. It is capitalism in the broadest definition of the term.
This could serve as an illustration of the times we are living in, and offer a lesson to those who wish to understand what is occurring in the current “thaw” between Washington and Havana.
The US government isn’t looking to bring about a regime change in Cuba. It wants to get ahead of developments to avoid problems for both ends, an economic crisis on the island that could spiral into chaos, an exodus more massive than we are seeing today and an unstable situation 90 miles from its coasts. To prevent this, it is applying a simple formula: stability comes before freedom. We may like this or not, we may accept or reject the principle, but it’s the truth.
Like Havana, Washington acts in accordance with its interests: maintaining social and political stability on both coasts.
To regard President Barack Obama’s visit in different terms is to be ignorant of the rules of the game. The problem for him isn’t the possibility that people in Miami may not see things this way, but making those who hold power in Cuba follow this principle. He traveled to convince them of this. If they get the sense they owe him their survival, so much the better. If such a process is accompanied by political change, perfect. These two things, however, aren’t essential conditions.
The United States will always try and sell the advantages of a democratic system, but that’s as far as things go.
The important thing, therefore, is to determine whether Cuba’s leadership is capable of carrying this process forward. Till now, there have been good reasons for pessimism, but there are also two tempting factors: time and money.
The press conference offered by Barack Obama and Raul Castro following their meeting behind closed doors on Monday provides us with some hints.
Beyond the clumsiness of the Cuban president, there are several indicators worthy of mention.
Perhaps because of the importance of his guest, Castro did not adopt an attitude of total rejection to his proposals, as his older brother would have. It’s true that the style of his replies followed the pattern established by his predecessor, but it would have been deluded to expect a different behavior. There was plenty of cynicism in his words, but there were also a number of suggestive details we shouldn’t overlook. The mere fact of admitting that Cuba does not meet all human rights requirements implies a shift in attitude.
For decades, Havana has used repression as yet another means of distracting people from the serious economic problems that weigh on the country. One of the main challenges faced by Havana is to eliminate or limit its use. We don’t yet know whether the revolutionary headquarters are capable of bringing about this change.
There’s much at stake, both for those who, in Cuba, cling to these wavering but still efficient mechanisms in order to remain in power and those who, in Miami’s émigré community – and, by extension, also in Washington – defend the traditional anti-Castro position.
It isn’t simply a basic definition of power, but something deeper: the ability to survive beyond the fundamental principles.
If Havana isn’t implementing a series of measures that will allow for the broadening of certain rights now, it is out of fear that the debate will acquire more compromising dimensions.
The Sunday ritual involving the Ladies in White, to mention an example that’s mentioned every day – is a clear demonstration of the current limitations of the Cuban government.
To put an end to this weekly practice in the least complicated fashion – that is to say, to permit their demonstrations – isn’t much of a challenge for the government, given the limited scope of this opposition group, but it would indirectly open the door to a more serious confrontation.
The regime needs the Ladies in White as much as they need to remain victims, as their raison d’etre. Without repression, their essence would disappear – in fact, as a movement, it has a very limited base that long lost its original purpose and their popularity.
When other factors within the opposition could begin to enjoy broader international and media recognition, it is preferable for the Cuban government to maintain a status quo that will result in shared benefits.
What President Obama is looking for is to bring about a change in that equation, which is not principally political but social and economic.
He is seeking a fundamental cultural change, where new schemes will come to replace shopworn paradigms. That change, were it to come about, would make Obama’s own perspective on Cuba obsolete also.
To make the rapprochement between Washington and Havana irreversible, further progress and increased investments and trade are needed. In good measure, this has not been achieved of yet not so much because of the embargo or the repression of dissidents, but the lack of mechanisms on both ends that can facilitate these transactions.
Cuba needs to make the processes and norms that stand in the way of more flexible initiatives, and this requires the de-politicization of society. Such a process needs a push from abroad, focused on broader and longer-term objectives.
While the debate surrounding Cuba continues to limit itself to the narrow and contradictory margins of the embargo and repression, the country will continue tethered to obsolete schemes. To help Cubans live better is a valid demand that goes beyond borders and should not be constrained by narrow political agendas.
A Havana Times translation of the original published in Spanish by cubaencuentro.com.