What’s Next for Cuba?

Against the Current, No. 176, May/June 2015

an interview with Janette Habel

This interview with Janette Habel was conducted by Jerome Latta and published online by the Left Front in France, December 26, 2014. Janette Habel teaches in the Institute of Latin American Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. Translation for Against the Current by Keith Mann.]

Left Front: Although the recent developments regarding U.S. policy towards Cuba have been presented as being a surprise, haven’t they been a long time coming?

Janette Habel: We know that there had been informal discussions and negotiations. The handshake between Raul Castro and Barack Obama during Nelson Mandela’s funeral, not long ago, didn’t just happen.

LF: So what was the big surprise?

JH: In the timing and the conditions under  which the new policy was announced. There were two particularly surprising elements.

On the one hand is the uncoupling of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations from the lifting of the embargo — which cannot be decreed by an executive order, since it requires a Congressional majority due to the Helms-Burton Act of 1996,  which tightened the sanctions.

On the other hand — a truly spectacular aspect of the situation that we can’t go into here — are the conditions under which the changes were announced. These consisted of simultaneous 35-minute pre-recorded television appearances by Raul Castro and Barack Obama.

This amounted to treating equally the sovereign head of state of the most powerful country in the world and that of a small nation of eleven milllion inhabitants which has tried for half a century to survive in face of the aggression of the former. It’s a classic David and Goliath story.

Barack Obama thus violated a clause in the Helms-Burton law that prohibits any negotiation with Cuba as long as Fidel and Raul Castro are in power.

It’s a political victory for Cuba after half a century of struggle, even if the general conflict is not over. In these times of doubt and uncertainty, one lesson is clear: Even a poor, small country can resist the world’s number one imperialist power.

LF: So the new U.S. position is truly spectacular?

JH: The content of Obama’s speech is very significant in that it is based on three major premises. First, U.S. policies towards Cuba have been a failure in that the objectives pursued over the last 50 years, i.e. the overthrow of the regime, was not attained. Thus trying to provoke the collapse of Cuba was not a feasible goal.

Finally, U.S. policies only isolated the United States especially in Latin America. The change is striking, coming from such a lukewarm president.

LF: What do these two countries each hope to gain on the international plane in the short term from these changes?

JH: The April 2015 Summit of the Americas to be held in Panama presented a dilemma for Obama because Cuba has traditionally been the only country excluded from these meetings. Many heads of state including Brazil’s Dilma Roussef as well as some of the region’s most conservative leaders and Panama, the host country, made clear they would not participate if Cuba was not invited. This assured a diplomatic defeat for the United States whether it participated or not.

The news of the rapprochement strengthened Cuba’s claim to participation in the summit, while allowing Barack Obama to claim a political victory by ending a failed policy that has been nearly universally condemned, including by the United Nations.

For its part Cuba was able to win the freedom of three agents (the Cuban Five — ed.) who had been imprisoned for 15 years and above all to obtain an objective set by Fidel Castro himself years ago: the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the United States without making concessions regarding Cuba’s political system or compromise its national sovereignty.

The “nation building plans” of the old-line Cuban exiles have been defeated. . .

LF: Does the critical situation facing Venezuela contribute to the evolving situation in Cuba?

JH: The issue of meeting energy needs is not the central one in these negotiations. Cuba is experiencing an extremely difficult economic situation and needs the normalization of relations with a power that is ninety miles from its shores.

Regardless of what the media have reported, the U.S. embargo and sanctions have had very serious economic consequences,. But having said that, it is also true that the oil diplomacy begun by Hugo Chavez has immensely aided Cuba and other Latin American countries.

This should be kept in mind at a time when Obama is ordering sanctions against Caracas. Clearly, U.S. diplomacy is attempting to use recent developments to divide and conquer.

What Comes Next?

LF: The consequences of the moves towards normalizing relations will be limited if the lifting of the embargo does not follow. What are the chances that Barack Obama can overcome Congressional opposition, given that his party is in the minority?

JH: With less than two years before the presidential election Obama is coming to the end of his term. The Republican Party is divided on the Cuban question into various interest groups, such as agro-business and bio-technological concerns among others who have long mobilized in favor of abolishing or lessening the embargo.

The United States has on its doorstep an important market to which it has been the only country without access, which has been extremely problematic for the agriculture and oil industries. Even within the Cuban diaspora, the continuation of what’s been a failed policy for half a century will not remain popular. Some of the exiles have cried “treason” in response to Obama’s moves, but the younger generation has responded more positively.

The Republicans might try in the short term to oppose the changes, but their opposition doesn’t seem to me to be tenable in the long run. The process may take some time and may not be linear, but the blockade’s impact will eventually fade.

LF: In what ways can these changes accelerate political and economic openings in Cuba? Do they signal the end of the Castro regime or its consolidation?

JH: The economic situation could improve with the influx of U.S. tourists and dollars, the possibility of importing goods of which Cubans have been deprived, the development of small private businesses, etc.

An improvment of the standard of living could help the regime stay in power. On the other hand, the inequalities that have already arisen due to the market reforms introduced by Raul Castro will continue, particularly because the goal of Obama’s reforms is to strengthen the private sector, to encourage the liberalization of the economy (in a capitalist direction) and ultimately the political system — a goal shared by certain sectors of the Cuban bureaucracy.

The political and ideological impact of these changes must be taken into and analyzed. What effect will they have on the Cuban people’s support for the revolution? How will the youth react?

The regime is prepared: It hoped to unleash an economic tiger while at the same time to maintain its political control with all its top-down and authoritarian functioning.

There won’t be any short-term changes regarding a pluralistic press or political parties, but there will be more freedom of expression. We’re already seeing that in spite of government efforts to control the internet blogs, free debate is growing by leaps and bounds.

LF: So it’s too early to proclaim the end of the Cuban revolution?

JH: What is certain is that the regime will lose one its great arguments to justify its restrictions of democratic freedoms: that of a besieged fortress.

A period of very important political changes is beginning, especially since Raul Castro has announced that he will leave the helm in 2018. When that happens, there will no longer be a Castro in power which will mark the end of an historical epoch.

But it will be different from the end of the regimes in Eastern Europe and China: In Cuba there still is what can be called a true radical left, small but combative, which to parapharase François Furet is not yet ready to write off Cuba as the “end of an illusion.”

We can’t predict how history will unfold, but it will depend on how the Cuban people will mobilize to defend the gains of the revolution. It will also depend on the reactions of other Latin American governments.

May/June 2015, ATC 176