Hope that radiates from Havana

There is a popular meme floating on the Internet about how Cuban leader Fidel Castro had prophetically said in 1973 that the United States would talk to Cuba once it had a “black President” and the Vatican a Pope from Latin America. As is with such memes, this too is more an urban legend. There is no evidence of Mr. Castro ever saying so. But that doesn’t mean that the present conjuncture isn’t unique and remarkable — of the U.S. normalising relations with Cuba following steps taken by the U.S.’s first African-American President after talks that were mediated by Pope Francis (born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Argentina).

The rapprochement with the U.S. comes at a time when Cuba is itself undergoing substantive change.” Picture shows Sasha Obama, U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama, President Obama and President Castro at an exhibition game between the Cuban National Team and the Major League baseball team Tampa Bay Devil Rays at the Estado Latinoamericano in Havana, Cuba.

It is no mean achievement that President Raul Castro and President Barack Obama pulled off the latter’s historic visit to Cuba, the first since President Calvin Coolidge did so 88 years ago. The process of normalisation of ties that led to this visit has addressed the ease of travel, allowing Cuban émigrés to send remittance to their homeland, eliminating a ban on Cuban financial transactions going through U.S. banks, among many others. It has also included the reopening of embassies in respective capital cities of the U.S. and Cuba.

Beginning of a process

A major hurdle still persists in the conclusion of the normalisation process, as the U.S.-imposed embargo (what Cubans call an economic blockade) on the Caribbean island nation remains in place. While Mr. Obama has emphasised the need to end this embargo, he can only get it done with Congressional approval. This, as things stand, seems improbable in the immediate future, considering Republican majority in both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate and the deep chasm between the Grand Old Party and the Obama White House over practically every legislative issue.

But what Mr.

Obama has sought to do is to chip away at the embargo bit by bit, by allowing the building of business relationships through small measures and hoping that economic reason will finally overturn the domestic opposition to the ending of the Cuban embargo. The main proponent of the embargo remains the powerful Cuban-American community in Florida, which continues to supply leaders to the Republican Party in particular and whose views are still framed by their experience as émigrés from the Cuban mainland. But the Hispanic community in Florida and elsewhere in the U.S. has become much more diverse and newer émigrés from Cuba do not carry the same animus for their homeland, signalling a reduction in the bargaining power of the naysayers.

There is, of course, support also from the influential farm sector in the U.S., which seeks to access the Cuban market and which is also closely linked to the Republican party in the American mid-West.

These sections, apart from the changing Cuban-American dynamics in Florida, have marshalled the possibilities of normalisation recently and eased Mr. Obama’s policy-setting.

The Obama Doctrine

In many ways, Mr. Obama’s second term has seen a decisive shift in U.S. foreign policy like no other President’s in his country’s recent past. A recent profile of his foreign policy in The Atlantic titled “The Obama Doctrine” portrays him as a restraint-driven realist concerned about the outcomes of the U.S’s overseas interventionism and an optimist convinced that the “world is bending towards justice”. As opposed to the neoconservative impulses of his predecessor and even the liberal interventionist position of his first term — set into motion by Hillary Clinton, current hopeful for the Democratic nomination and then his Secretary of State — in his second term Mr. Obama has tended to stay truer to his stated positions as the candidate who promised “change”.

And this has significantly helped resurrect the U.S.’s image, especially in Latin America, and has particularly motivated his policy decisions regarding Cuba.

That said, during his visit, Mr. Obama did lay out his differences with Cuba’s political system even as he emphasised that the U.S. must not impose its values upon its neighbour. He called into question Cuba’s policies on political prisoners, positions on political dissidence and universal human rights — which Mr. Castro sought to counter with the U.S.’s record on universal health care and education, which are guaranteed in the island nation, as well as on race relations and economic inequality.

Mr. Obama’s response was to welcome a constructive dialogue with his Cuban counterpart on these issues. This was remarkable, coming from an American President whose recent predecessors treated the communist regime as an anomaly and a hindrance, refusing to acknowledge the successes of the regime while gleefully demonising its frailties and contradictions.

The rapprochement with the U.S. comes at a time when Cuba is itself undergoing substantive change. The regime of President Raul has initiated steps to ease state control of the economy, and has allowed capital (both domestic and even foreign) greater play in many sectors. The regime has maintained free health care, free education and social welfare and tried to retain alternative modes of economic activity such as cooperatives, but it is unmistakeable that Cuba has realised the need for efficiency via markets as opposed to overarching state control, leading towards steady economic liberalisation.

An easing of the embargo should accelerate this movement in the direction of greater marketisation, which is expected to increase the purchasing power of Cubans and diversify an economy too dependent on select sectors such as tourism. The ending of the embargo should also give Havana the reassurance to abandon its excuse that the country is under siege, and allow a shift from a de facto one-party state to a more vibrant participative democracy that countenances political dissent. Indeed, Cuba can learn lessons on democratic socialism from its own pupils in Latin America who look up to it for inspiration.

Cuba’s success has been its inordinate influence over Latin America and its success in representing the idea of compassionate socialism (in spite of its flaws). The country’s export of health professionals and know-how, its long-standing solidarity with the oppressed, and its promotion of multi-polarity has won it friends the world over.

A new chapter unfolds

The meeting between Presidents Obama and Castro is in some ways a dialogue between two regimes that represented conflicting ideologies and whose battle split the world during the Cold War in the 20th century. The fall of the Soviet Union was celebrated by many as a triumph of capitalism and the “end of history”. But the financial and economic crisis in the developed world in the past decade, the survival of Cuba and the re-emergence of socialist regimes in Latin America suggests that history is still unfolding.

President Obama, by representing the idea of a welfare and liberal democracy that is willing to listen to contrarian views, and President Castro, leading a regime that is moving away from the 20th century version of hard-edged socialism, are in the process of writing a new chapter in contemporary history. The outcomes and possibilities make President Obama’s visit to Cuba utterly remarkable even for an observer who is geopolitically far removed.


Posted by on March 25, 2016. Filed under World. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.