Wednesday, October 14, 2020

The Impact of the US Election from a Cuban Perspective

 The Impact of the US Election from a Cuban Perspective

   by Jose Viera

On one occasion, Fidel Castro said that the results of the presidential elections in the United States were so important to Cuba that Cubans should be able to vote in them. In the next elections to be held in November the result will bear important consequences for the Island and, of course, for Miami, in particular the Cuban-American community.

Six years ago, on December 14, 2014, the joint announcement by Presidents Barak Obama and Raúl Castro of an agreement to negotiate the normalization of diplomatic relations and explore cooperation in areas of common interest opened a new phase in bilateral relations that, for the first time since 1959, was not based on hostility.

This brief period was quickly reversed by the then newly re-elected President Trump who, on June 16, 2017 in Miami stated: "Therefore, effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba."[1]

In fact, the cancellation of these advances did not happen immediately, as Trump proclaimed in his usual arrogant and theatrical style.

During the years 2015-2016, the two countries had negotiated a score of cooperation agreements that were of importance to both the United States and Cuba, while at the same time, people-to-people relations increased substantially. Cuban-American visits and family relationships multiplied and Cuba even proved to be an immediate market –even under the conditions of the embargo- for US airlines and cruise companies with all indications of significant growth, even in the short term.

It was not possible for the Republican administration to reverse everything that had been advanced at a stroke; they have not even managed to do it in its entirety until now, but they did bring a sustained dismantling of all cooperation and even a severe increase in unilateral sanctions and a tenacious persecution of Cuban financial and commercial ties with the world. Today it can be said that the embargo ("blockade" for the Cubans) is more extensive, systematic and thorough than ever before.

Trump's policy was never explained in positive terms, he never presented a goal to be achieved other than reversing a visionary foreign policy achievement of his predecessor in the White House. In none of his statements did Trump offer a vision of the future of relations between the United States and Cuba, much less of how he conceived them in the framework of inter-American relations as a whole. It was not stated what were the interests of the United States in Cuba outside of promoting a change of regime or how to ensure a supposed democratization on the island. Nor was it explained how imposing more economic penalties on Cuba could provoke a regime change or how Cuba or Cuban-Americans could be affected by causing economic and social chaos on the island. By saying that the economic sanctions were to deny resources to government and party leaders, it was concealed that the real victims were the citizens of the island, the Cuban people, who were denied the means for their subsistence and development. It was a massive punishment seeking to force Cubans toward instability and disorder.

Even as recently as September 23 of this year, already in the middle of the electoral process and in search of his re-election, President Trump explained his actions fundamentally in terms contrary to those of the previous administration, stating that: “The Obama-Biden administration made a weak, pathetic, one-sided deal with the Castro dictatorship that betrayed the Cuban people and enriched the communist regime. I canceled the Obama-Biden sellout to the Castro regime."[2]

Both in the 2016 elections, as during his four years in office and even when facing his coveted reelection in 2020, at no time did Trump think of a policy towards Cuba, a plan based on solid foundation - that would take the history of those relations into account. – to forge a bond between two neighboring countries that can benefit each other so much.  Nor, even with the goal of changing the political and economic system on the island, did he articulate the way to achieve it in the best possible terms, without exposing Cubans, and even North Americans, to incalculable risks of violence and loss.

Every time what Trump decides about Cuba, is determined by his goals in the internal politics of the United States, to win the vote of Cuban-Americans.   In fact, he cares little about what happens to Cuba or to the Cubans. Nothing proves this better than the following statements by Trump: “Cuba has been very good to me, in the Florida elections, you know, the Cuban people, Americans…,” apparently the President of the United States considers that all Cubans are US citizens and vote in the elections in Florida.[3]

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has not provided extensive explanations of his policy toward Cuba. "Former Vice President Joe Biden said Monday he would return to Obama-era policies of engagement with Cuba and reverse the Trump administration's sanctions if he wins the White House race in November." "In large part, I would go back,”[4] Biden said. To these statements last April he recently added: “I’d try to reverse the failed Trump policies, it inflicted harm on Cubans and their families,” Biden said. "It's done nothing to advance democracy and human rights, on the contrary, the crackdown on Cubans by the regime has gotten worse under Trump, not better."[5] These statements have been nuanced with references to what Cuba should do in its relations with Venezuela and in the fulfillment of supposed commitments acquired by the Cuban side.

Neither Biden, and much less Trump, have offered an explanation of a policy towards Cuba that corresponds to a statesman's vision that describes the strategic interests of the United States, taking into account those of Cuba, and aiming to close the negative chapters of the complex historical relationship between the two countries.

Obama's policy.

In his statement of December 17, 2014, President Obama, in an excellent speech, outlined a vision of the future of these relations. One may or may not agree with his positions but there is no doubt of its transparency, depth and broad scope. Two concepts deserve special consideration.[6]

The first is the  “policy of engagement”, he said: “…I am convinced that, through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century.”

The other was to abandon the goal of bringing political, economic and social collapse in Cuba. Obama said: “Moreover, it does not serve America’s interests or the Cuban people to try to push Cuba towards collapse.” Adding: “Even if that worked -- and it hasn’t for 50 years -- we know from hard-earned experience that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos.”

It is necessary to understand the practical scope of both concepts in the context of the relations of both countries since 1959.

The proclamation that the United States did not seek to push Cuba to collapse signified accepting the reality of changes that occurred in Cuba since January 1, 1959. At the same time, the geographic proximity, the strategic situation of the island at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, would provoke the beginning of an important and beneficial cooperation between both parties in a whole set of areas ranging from health care and weather forecasting to exchange and cooperation on legitimate issues that concern national security. Differences on international issues could be examined, and topics as important as compensation for the nationalization of American investments in Cuba, and compensation to Cuba for human and material losses due to American hostility, could find a solution in the new political and diplomatic environment created.[7]

More importantly, without a collapse of the Cuban system, the legality existing in Cuba is consolidated. This has an enormous practical significance for every Cuban. In the aggressive and tendentious campaign of defamation and demonization of the revolution, American citizens are never reminded that the Cuban Revolution not only nationalized or confiscated the properties of foreigners and wealthy Cubans but also created hundreds of thousands of new owners in Cuba. More than 200,000 Cuban farmers received possession of the lands they cultivated. The Revolution gave ownership of their homes to hundreds of thousands of Cubans who previously paid rent to individuals or who got new apartments and houses build by the State or by themselves.  A collapse of the Cuban system would end the legal protection of these owners.

In fact, for the United States to proclaim that it was not seeking the collapse of the Cuban system but that it will use engagement to influence its evolution, meant something concrete and positive for practically every Cuban citizen.

The policy of engagement, of promoting the values ​​that Washington looks to see in force in Cuba through the promotion of cultural, economic, scientific cooperation between both peoples meant rescuing the most powerful ideological and political weapon available to the United States in its relation with the island nation : its great cultural influence in Cuba.  The fact that Cuban nationality was forged parallel in time to the period in which the United States became consolidated as an independent state and that the rapid growth of intense economic ties and the importation of technological advances that Spain was unable to provide to Cuba, insured that in the emerging identity of Cubans was present the cultural influence of the United States.

This general influence includes now the particularly important relationship with Miami. Undoubtedly the participation of Cuban Americans occupies a main place in Obama's confidence that the engagement policy would have a profound impact in Cuba.

The mutual cultural influence between Havana and Miami was not born with the emigration that took place after 1959. That influence grew steadily throughout the post-war period and was very evident in the 1950s. Ten of thousands of Cubans visited Miami each year, spending vacations, shopping, and experiencing American society. The geographical proximity and the ease of transportation provided by intense air and maritime links even led to practically a daily trade by Cubans who traveled back and forth in the same day. In that period, many Cubans, not only corrupt politicians, invested in Miami in significant amounts.[8]

Indeed, after 2014, the number of Cubans visiting the United States, especially Florida, and Cuban-American visits to Cuba increased even more, as did remittances to Cuba.   These now also included masked personal and family investments on the island within the framework of the conditions created by the timid and limited economic reforms in the Cuban system.

Many consider that the engagement policy proclaimed in 2014 did not find support in the Cuban-American Community and that this is shown because, facing the elections on November 3, support for the Democratic candidate will be less than it was in 2016 A major poll just released, the most recent Cuba FIU Poll 2020, finds that 60% of Cuban-Americans support Trump's reelection.

However, data provided by the same survey show very important contradictions in the opinions of Cuban-Americans, that allow affirming that there are present in the Cuban-American community aspirations in relations with Cuba that do not have space in the policy followed by Trump in his present mandate or those that would seem to bring his re-election. The following is one of those contradictions.

Parallel to the eight-year term of President Obama and the gradual reduction of hostility towards Cuba, support for the embargo fell from almost 60% at the beginning of that term to 47% in 2014 and 34% in 2016, the year of the lowest register. At the same time, support for normalization of relations and engagement grew from around 55% in 2008 to 66% in 2014 and 72% in 2016. That is, far from decreasing after two years of its application, support for normalization tended to grow among Cuban-Americans in Miami.[9]

But it is not the only contradiction. Actually among the possible policy implications of the poll is “strong support strong support for suspending the sanctions codified in the embargo to allow for humanitarian assistance during the COVID-19 crisis”.  There is high or strong support for “selling of food and medicines,” for “airlines to establish routes to all regions of Cuba, ”and for “policies designed specifically to improve the economic well-being of Cubans on the island”[10]

It would seem that the reversal of normalization trends under the Trump administration is not due to a rejection of Obama's initiatives but to the impact of open and increased hostility towards Cuba, and towards all those who supported those initiatives in Miami, in a community so sensitive to intimidation and political intolerance.  In the discussion of the findings of the FIU Poll, the pollsters state that it may be that “Cuban Americans are not so much shaping as reflecting U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba.”[11]

The support for the reelection of Trump is better explained by the absence of an open political debate in the Cuban – American community in Miami, without intimidation,  Also important is the excessive caution of Democratic Party candidates in explaining what return to engagement would bring to economic advantages and in family ties.  An additional factor is concealment of the true intentions and consequences of the continuation of the economic strangulation of Cuba by Trump, seeking the collapse of the Cuban system.

The re-election of Trump would bring much more than a worsening of the living conditions of the Cuban people.  His ultimate goal coincides with the desire for revenge and going back to December 31, 1958, of the most conservative, racist and anti-popular sectors of the Cuban emigration. To propose the collapse of the Cuban system would mean the end of the legal protection for the properties of land and houses of the Cubans who share their destiny on the island and who received those properties from the Revolution. The desire for revenge is directed not only against the leaders of the government and the Cuban communist party, but against all the people. Nothing would stop the counter-revolutionaries.

On the other hand, the return to engagement, with the most propitious conditions already created by the still fearful and insufficient economic reforms applied in Cuba particularly this year, opens the door for a decisive increase in cultural, economic and people-to-people relations between Cuba and the United States, but especially between Cuba and Miami and Florida. No one will benefit more from this increase than Cubans on both sides of the Florida Strait.

The political and economic evolution of the Cuban system and of the political trends among Cuban-Americans would become subject to a "battle of ideas." Finding who is afraid of that battle means discovering enemies of the future of the Cuban people.

[7] It should be remembered that Cuba paid compensation for the nationalizations to foreign interests in Cuba with the only probable exception of Americans because of Washington's refusal to find a negotiated solution. Cuba has never denied its obligation to pay.  The very laws that protected the nationalization included mechanisms of payment that can open the way to a wide deal that includes trade and mutual compensation.

[8] For an illustrative explanation of the links between Miami and Havana in the 1950s and the influence of the culture of the United States on the identity of Cubans see "On Becoming Cuban", by Louis Perez Jr. University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill

[9] 2020 FIU Cuba Poll. Appendix 2: Selected Trends. Figure 41.

[10] 2020 FIU Cuba Poll, page 46.

[11] Idem.

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