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{Published on Dateline: America}

Like sports, strange things happen sometimes in politics. Virtually no one expected events like peace between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, the fall of the Soviet Bloc or the Arab Spring. Or this.

Back in January, when I blogged about the 55th anniversary of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution and commented on the last five decades of acrimony between Cuba and the US, I said this:

The best way to end this staring contest starts with the words of the late John Paul II in his historic visit to Cuba in 1998: Cuba should open itself to the world and the world should open itself to Cuba. Paraphrased for the current state of affairs, Cuba should be open to the type of fundamental changes the US wants and the US should be open to just dealing with Cuba as a sovereign entity and not as a pariah. Attempts at dialogue exist, such as the recently restarted migration talks, but it should not end there. It all starts with the end of the embargo, which will deny the Cuban government one of its most effective excuses for insisting on the anachronistic Revolution as-is and start stripping the proverbial clothes of the emperor. If the Cuban government does not want to be left in the buff, it should allow for real accountability, instead of acting like the cornered cat.

President Obama just did the first half of the late pontiff’s paraphrased suggestion: The US will deal with Cuba as an equal. After months of negotiations so secret no one even imagined they were going on, and after a spy swap reminiscent of the pinnacle of the Cold War, Obama announced a series of actions geared at normalizing relations with Cuba, such as the expansion of economic ties, opening a full-fledged embassy in Havana (currently, there is only an interests section), a visit by State Secretary John Kerry, the removal of Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism (on it since 1982), and easing travel restrictions (but stopping short of permitting tourist travel). Reportedly, the news was well received in Latin America and even more enthusiastically in Cuba itself; even a full-time critic of the US like Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro praised the move as “courageous and historically necessary”. José Miguel Insulza, the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States, also welcomed the US decision to normalize relations with Cuba, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that it was “very positive”. In DC, the GOP duly rejected the move: House Speaker John Boehner said Obama made a concession to “a dictatorship that brutalizes its people and schemes with our enemies” and Florida Senator Marco Rubio thought Obama was being naïve. But it was not just the Republicans: Senator Bob Menéndez (D-NJ) declared that it was “a fallacy that Cuba will reform just because the American President believes that if he extends his hand in peace that the Castro brothers suddenly will unclench their fists”. In Miami, many Cuban exiles believed that Obama stabbed them in the back, but reaction was actually more mixed.

Of course we should celebrate this move, or rather, the willingness of both sides to engage with each other more constructively than before. At the same time, enthusiasm should be guarded because any gain to be made here can be easily reversed. Remember that under the latest budget agreement the federal government has been funded for only one year, so if and when another budget agreement comes the GOP could strike back at Obama by defunding the State Department so it cannot set up or keep the promised US embassy in Havana, just as they have funded the Department of Homeland Security for only six months so it cannot carry out Obama’s recent executive orders on immigration. Or maybe the incoming GOP majority in the Senate could simply stall Obama’s nominee for Ambassador to Cuba or, perhaps, any high-level presidential appointee deemed too friendly to opening up “the Cuban regime”, just as South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint (now the head of the Heritage Foundation) was able to stall the appointment of Arturo Valenzuela as head of the State Department’s Western Hemisphere Bureau and of Thomas Shannon as Ambassador to Brazil simply because Obama would not support (initially) those who deposed Honduran President and alleged chavista stooge Manuel Zelaya in 2009. Or maybe some fire-breathing GOP congressman from Podunk, USA may attempt yet again to build a case against Obama for his “unconstitutional power grab” and bring this decision as “evidence”. Finally, and even more obviously, the incoming Congress will leave Helms-Burton firmly in place, despite the fact that the embargo it institutionalizes was overwhelmingly rejected by the UN General Assembly for the 23rd year in a row. Therefore, Obama does not have lots of room to maneuver and should not to be too ambitious in what he wants to accomplish. And no, the existence of Republican legislators willing to think differently, like Rand Paul and Jeff Flake (R-AZ), will not help because there are too few of them to sway GOP foreign policy orthodoxy. In fact, some of the GOP’s major wannabe Presidents (Rick Perry, Ted Cruz, Scott Walker) have spoken, and it was not to congratulate Obama.

That said, it is a good idea to assume that Obama is on to something that will last a long time and for me to revisit my January post in light of these developments.

I do not believe that the decision to normalize relations with Cuba came from a mea culpa for the six decades of neocolonialism before the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, but it does make the public acknowledgement that the confrontation and destabilization that came soon afterwards have not worked. If anything, they have reinforced the siege mentality that has given the Cuban government a convenient excuse for the human rights violations and institutionalized repression the GOP, Bob Menéndez, and hardline Cuban exiles pontificate against, making a victim out of a paranoid demagogue. (Remember that the whole point of the Cuban Revolution, more so than Marxism, was national liberation.) Indeed, US destabilization undermined any possibility of holding Fidel Castro accountable for reneging on the lofty promises he made of elections and democracy after the triumph of the Revolution and, instead, made a victim out of him and his paranoia. For those reasons, if the US wants this rapprochement to work, it should
stop insisting on regime change and cleaning up its act on human rights, which means that the current democracy promotion schemes in place (see an example here) should be thoroughly revised or suspended altogether and that the Obama administration should not think of the whole idea as exercising leverage over the future of Cuba. One big reason is that it sends a mixed message that will not sit well with the Cuban government and make it think that this is forced democratization through the “carrots and sticks” method (Obama did speak of it as a way to engage with Cuba down the road), effectively undermining Cuban trust in US intentions and, therefore, scuttling any attempt at mending fences.

Another big reason is that public statements like Marco Rubio’s (“It is just another concession to a tyranny by the Obama administration rather than a defense of every universal and inalienable right that our country was founded on and stands for”) or Obama’s (“The people of Cuba deserve the same rights, freedoms and opportunities as anyone else. And so the United States is going to continue supporting the basic rights of the Cuban people”), or even tweets like John Boehner’s (“Relations with the Castro regime should not be revisited, let alone normalized, until the Cuban people enjoy freedom – & not 1 second sooner”), ring awfully hollow after the outgoing Senate released its report on torture, the discovery of Boehner owning stocks with US companies doing business with Myanmar (a full-fledged dictatorship, like the GOP says Cuba is) and China (a one-party state just like Cuba and a place visited by both Menéndez and Rubio in the past), and black marks on the international reputation of the US such as Abu Ghraib. For the US to cast stones at Cuba, as detractors of Obama’s decision demand, while remaining blemished by sin is outright hypocritical.

A third reason why the US should stop insisting on regime change in Cuba relates to the long-term impact of this rapprochement on the latter. First, if Cuba is to truly benefit from any future business deal with US companies, it cannot continue with the current Soviet-inspired central planning model much longer. To say the least, not even the small business ownership the government now encourages will keep the Revolution solvent without yielding ground to the invisible hand of the market. That conclusion matters a lot because, as Julia Sweig, from the Council on Foreign Relations, has mentioned, the Cuban government seems to know that unless it finds new economic activities and taxes them, the concurrent demographic trends of an ever-growing number of elderly citizens and an ever-decreasing number of working-age citizens will jeopardize the Revolution’s major accomplishments. The bottom line, then, is that an economy constantly and arbitrarily tweaked with by Daddy Party-State does nothing to encourage entrepreneurship – either domestically or from abroad. It is unclear if future dealings with US corporations will include any nationalized properties the US has demanded Cuba not to deal with, but even Major League Baseball wants in on the action and bring another Yasiel Puig or Yoenis Céspedes without waiting for another defection.

Moreover, it bears repeating William LeoGrande’s explanation for why the Cuban Revolution took that controversial turn toward what it has been up to this point: Sacrifices, in the form of disallowing dissent, had to be made for the sake of overcoming the clash with the US that ensued right after the triumph of the Revolution, but as a result threats were blown out of proportion. If Obama and the US show in actual, verifiable deeds that it is willing to leave the past behind and start fresh, the Cuban government would not have any real justification to find counterrevolutionaries at every corner or invent them; hence, no need for institutionalized snitching through the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, sending muckraking bloggers to the slammer or killing peaceful dissidents and make the whole thing look like an accident. These concurrent effects of Obama’s move, in short, have the potential to force the Cuban Revolution to rethink itself and even evolve. The short-term result will not be liberal democracy, but neither will it be the continuation of totalitarianism; Raúl Castro might have said publically that the socialist principles of the Cuban state are not negotiable, but things have changed so much that insisting on socialist orthodoxy is now as anachronistic as the embargo. In short, rapprochement will the US will make Cuba’s political evolution more and more unavoidable. It is no longer a matter of if, but of how fast or how slow it should go. If this is the bailout that the GOP and the exiles think that “saved” the “Cuban regime”, it came with quite a handful of strings attached.

Finally, it has been argued already that there may be parallels between this thaw in US-Cuba relations and the historic engagement with China of the 1970s. Nobody like Henry Kissinger himself, despite his nefarious influence in Latin America, to point out the lessons from that engagement for how to deal with Cuba from now on: generate a sense of common purpose in areas of mutual concern, which will require in turn a commitment to cooperation and finding ways to relate their grand visions to each other and the world; and avoid rhetoric that feeds on each other’s fears and biases. If both governments commit to at least that much, the purported new era in US-Cuba relations will be fact and not empty posturing.

This is a darn good time to be a Latin Americanist.