Published in On Cuba.
"In difficult times": the tango of normalization (I)
To what extent will the emerging political context of elections in the US really allow agreements to be awakened and the tango of relations with Cuba to be re-launched?
by Rafael Hernandez November 11, 2020
In a well-known 1968 poem, Heberto Padilla describes a man who is asked to successively deliver parts and capabilities of his body. When he has given them all up, they urge him to walk straight into the future, "for in difficult times/this is undoubtedly the decisive test".
Although these then-controversial verses referred to the asymmetry between the state and the individual, their poetic allure allows us to reread them as a metaphor for the asymmetry of powers between the US and Cuba, and the difficult treatment between our two nations and countries.
Now that a window for understanding between the two sides appears to open again, as a result of the recent elections in the North, some place the question: what will the island government do to seize this new opportunity, on which the future of the country depends?
In English it is said "to dance the tango it takes two". Unlike rumba, in which dancers evolve on their own, when you dance as closely as in tango, there is no way to judge what one does without seeing (and understanding) what the other is doing. To really appreciate it you would have to give a little rewind to the tango of normalization.
Despite the rule of law and the balance between the three governing powers in the United States, most of what was agreed with Cuba during Obama's short summer did not have the stability of agreements between states, but only between governments. That trait, by the way, is nothing new. Almost none of the major agreements over 60 years have been endorsed by Congress to become treaties, because understandings, which leave it hands free, have sufficed for the Executive to change them if it suits him. These are the cases of the 1965, 1984 and 1995 migration agreements, the 1973 hijacking of aircraft, the 1977 fisheries and maritime boundaries, and so on.
Of the 22 bilateral instruments adopted during the Obama administration (the largest round of tango in more than half a century), almost all had only the category of memorandums of understanding (MOU): scheduled flights, passenger safety and commerce, cancer health cooperation, law enforcement and enforcement; as well as conservation and management of marine protected areas, hydrography and geodesy for maritime safety, exchange on agriculture and related areas, conservation of wildlife and protected areas, animal and plant health inspection, exchange of information and research on climate and meteorology, as well as joint response to hydrocarbon spillage in the Gulf and Florida Strait.1
Beyond the MOU category, it was agreements that restored diplomatic relations and the opening of permanent diplomatic missions—the first with the Obama administration—and cooperation between Zapata Swamp Park and the Everglades Park in animal life protection, which was the last. It also had this category of operational cooperation to deal with illicit trafficking in drugs and psychotropic substances.
The others consisted of "joint declarations" on immigration policy (continuing the agreement signed in 1995) and environmental protection; a pilot plan for direct mail; a joint programme for the teaching of English and an "arrangement" to admit security officers on board aircraft.
Only the treaty category reached the delimitation of the continental shelf in the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico, beyond 200 miles, which reformulated the 1977 agreement. The legal existence of this instrument is rather virtual, as it has not been submitted to Congress for approval.
The list of understandings and agreements reflects the diplomatic level achieved by the ongoing normalizing process under the Obama administration. How to appreciate this tango from the "bottom" side? To put it in a fashionable language for these lares, tended to negotiate with the U.S. government involved Cuba investing in a joint venture whose counterpart submitted hardly any memorandums of intent, without providing any seed money or lines of credit or fresh capital, or signing any contracts. It led to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a corporation called America Inc., which was to leave office in a very short time, a credit that included unusual access, going beyond the lack of reliability accumulated by that corporation in the Cuban, regional and global market.
To conclude the idea with the same jargon, although the CEO and other managers of America Inc. argued that they had to deal with their shareholders at an assembly called Congress, which greatly complicated their decisions, the Cuban Government-Party business counterpart also had to deal with a diversity of opinions, up and down, logically concerned about collateral risks and costs that did not have insurance to guarantee them.
In previous texts I drew attention to the asymmetrical nature of the process called standardization with the US. I listed unilateral actions from Cuba, which, despite emerging negative reactions from both sides, and occasional disagreements over tango steps, helped to prevail the will to continue dancing until the end. The greatest of these decisions involved discarding the choreography used by China and Vietnam, whose full diplomatic relations with the US previously went through commercial and financial normalization, security and cooperation. By putting the opening of embassies ahead of the lifting of the embargo, Cuba prioritized the start of dialogue and negotiation, despite the risks and costs noted above.
What I have said is intended to set the milestones of this recent story, apparently forgotten by some when they talk about "Cuba's lack of response." I do not intend to devalue the merits and achievements of the intense diplomacy deployed on both sides, but only to set points on certaintíes.
The last of these points is strategic. In a framework of radical asymmetry, such as that between Cuba and the US, a negotiating process that fits a quid pro quo (that is, bartering – mechanics is fatal. This mechanic is reflected in questions such as "what internal changes will Cuba make in reciprocity to the US, after 58 years, lifting the embargo?", or "what would Cubans give in exchange for returning control of those 117 square kilometers of its territory occupied by the US Navy at the entrance to Guantanamo Bay, since 1898?"
I know that for some, those questions are legitimate. And it is not that the issues of the embargo and the naval base do not deserve to be worked together, in conflict resolution scenarios that creatively imagine mutually agreed dispute-overcoming mechanisms. But a Cuban government that accepted them as part of the logical quid pro quo, with a communicative vessel inwards, would be exposed not only to opening a flank in its negotiating position, but above all to a loss of legitimacy, both among its followers and among many other citizens, on and off the island, for whom the defense of the national interest goes through sovereignty, first and foremost.
To recap the steps of our tango, I invite you to re-select the raffle of agreements noted above and answer some questions. To what extent do they reflect interests on both sides? Which of these instruments were unilateral concessions to the Cuban government on the part of the United States? In what specific areas were achieved: economic and commercial relations, ecology, transport, culture and education, diplomacy, security and defense? How many and which departments like Homeland Security, on the one hand, and MININT or MINFAR on the other? To what extent did cooperation between these bodies fulfill national interests on both sides, or barely benefit the bodies themselves?
As Philip Brenner of the nine main agreements or MOU has pointed out, eight remain valid*; three have been fully implemented; four partially or restrictedly and the only unvalidated is still respected by both parties. So almost all 23 (including the embassy opening) are alive. As in the Sleeping Beauty scene, in which the characters suddenly fall into a deep sleep, the nightmare of renewed hostility during Trump's reign failed to erase what was agreed, but rather put it into hibernation.
In addition to taking Trump out of the White House, these elections showed—anyone who had eyes to see beyond polls, political flip flops, and local struggles—the enormous gravitation of conservative populism, a substrate of Trumpism, into truly existing political culture. How this living and collecting substrate will affect the immediate future will be revealed in the republican opposition's ability to raise the cost and counteract the next government's initiatives.
Soon, many people of goodwill dream of the president-elect's ability to heal a divided society (by Trump...) and subtract a democracy lacerated by four years of deviation from the right path, among other well-meaning images. In addition to the success that rectifying negative errors and trends can achieve within that great nation, it is very likely that the new governing team will also prioritize the counter-reform of Trumpism in the large areas of problems of its global foreign policy: European Union, China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, climate change, free trade agreements, etc.
It is within that real political framework that it would then make sense to ask our question: to what extent will the emerging political context of the US elections really allow agreements to be awakened and the tango of relations with Cuba put into motion again?
The denial of Trumpism should logically lead to the rectification of its brutal decisions towards Cuba. In particular, those that directly affect Cubans on the island and in emigration. Although polls and the campaign itself showed a not-so-luminous side of that suddenly Trumpist emigration, some preliminary figures have revealed that his vote was ultimately not as Republican as he foreshadowed, let alone determining election results in Florida's most Cuban districts, which voted blue. Remittances, travel, sales of food and medicine and, above all, standardization of the consulate and the visa process in Havana would respond to those interests, on both sides.
The second moment in the logic of interrupted relations would be for the new administration to open the archives where the 22 agreements signed with Cuba were deceived, return to the point where they were in January 2017, and at least resume dialogue and diplomacy of meetings around what has already been agreed, even if it did not progress another millimeter.
Finally, I would be resizing the normalization process. No think tank or lobby can provide a more articulate, accurate and comprehensive strategic document for a Democratic administration than the US-Cuba Presidential Relations Directive, produced by the Obama administration in October 2016, and then agreed with all the state bureaucracy involved in any relationship with Cuba. Biden was part of the government team that generated the standardization policy in 2014 and produced that document. It would be logical for that directive to be retouched at some point, and to circulate on its external relations team, perhaps with a notice of Biden's handwriting in the margin, asking for updates and adjustments, between question marks.
But in politics, it's not enough to make sense. Neither Cuba has the relevance it had at the peculiar juncture of an outgoing administration in its final months; nor are we in the world of 2016 (but virtually in 2021) nor does this Democratic administration come to power as the previous one did, as is obvious from everything noted above.
On the other hand, in many journalistic commentary on the Cuba-USA tango, it seems as if the two were alone on the dance floor. What character will the triangles of both have with the European Union, China and Russia? To what extent can the US-Venezuela-Cuba triangle evolve? What factors, not only in Washington, but in Caracas and the international environment, can influence it? What will happen in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2021? In places like Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil...? Those who repeat the old tango of monodependence as Cuban doom do not seem to understand the complexity of these networks of current relationships, and their geopolitical implications.
Four years of Trump, with high economic costs to Cuba, have not represented qualitatively new strategic challenges, as the government has more practice in dealing with U.S. hostility than normalization. In the waiting period, circumstances have imposed the urgency of the transformations of the established order, and accelerated their implementation. Perhaps when we look back, in a few years' time, we can discover that misfortunes like COVID-19 and Trump helped to bring that change to a close, and to do so in a totally disassociated manner from a negotiation with the United States.
In any case, for those who like parallels, the new administration will meet its first 100 days in coincidence with the VIII Congress of the PCC. In contrast to so much theatricalization of dominant network politics, and editorials by tirios and Trojans, an equal look at those hundred days would allow us to anticipate how the tango paints, and its new steps, in difficult and decisive times.
*Philip Brenner, "Recovering Empathy: An Examination of the Cuban-US MOUs". Lecture in the XVII Edition of the Series of Conversations "Cuba-U.S. Relations: The Challenge of a Coexistence Based on Mutual Interests"; December 16, 17 and 18, 2019. ISRI, Havana, Cuba.
"In difficult times": the tango of normalization (II)
Cuba is not on the agenda of major problems. But that is precisely why it can serve as a less complicated and cautious demonstrative effect than turning relations with China, Iran and immigration politics.
by Rafael Hernandez November 25, 2020
A Japanese friend told me that in her land people do not follow the elections and avatars of US politics so closely; they are more interested in the People's Republic of China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, with which their own history is inserted, including, by the way, hot immigration influences. It is not that they and their government suffer from a colonial syndrome that puts their destiny in the hands of others, of a mentality dependent and obsessive with these neighbors, or anything personal, ideological or paranoid towards them, but of a geopolitical condition, which explains a knowledge before Marxism-Leninism.
The Japanese parallel illustrates a recurring edge in some visions of US-Cuba relations: ethnocentrism. According to this optics, Cubans do not look like anyone else, what happens to us is always exceptional, a tragedy of 60 years has set out the national being, rather glued, we are very different from other places where concord and understanding reign, and the worst of all in the face of the goodwill of the Americans, with whom we do not manage to understand ourselves because we do not really want to , unlike so many others that harmonize with them. Thus we go, always seeing the straw in our eye, like Caribbean Jews, transitioned by diaspora, exodus and other biblical glosses.
This ethnocentrism, by the way, is also reflected in ideas such as US presidents rising up thinking about the Cuban Revolution, that we are the thorn on the side of the empire, that Cuban politics only responds to ideological motivations and not to national interests, that our allies are those who share our highest principles and values, that the nation is confused with socialism Etc.
This ethnocentrism, from where you can hardly understand and explain politics, gives vampires an air: they are not seen in their own mirror. I mean, they only see the qualities they've chosen.
In an earlier text, I tried to characterize relations between Cuba and the United States during the terms of Office of Barack Obama and Raul Castro, map the tango they executed in just two years, show that the two sides yielded considerably, taking into account not only the barrier of embargo, but that of the legacy of mistrust, and the enormous asymmetry that separates them. I also mentioned some differences between the two, such as the risks and collateral costs assumed, without insurance to guarantee them.
Let me take a few more steps down this often hidden verdict. When the US government establishes agreements with Cuba, it can assume that it will deal with the same government for a time longer than four years. The stability factor has the advantage of allowing you to know the Cuban leadership well, learn how you think, predict your reactions, analyze your environment, calculate the limits of your power and the viability of your policies, projected on five-year plans. The Cuban side lacks that advantage. If Joe Biden now fills us with hope, we must not forget that, as soon as 2024 arrives, the 51 polling stations in charge can choose a Donald Trump perfectly (God forbid).
That situation pre-conditions relationships. Already, the president-elect's team has an eye to secure the second term, as well as to tie up a congressional election in just two years. As we know, since the 1960 struggle between Nixon and JFK, that electoral climate, with its high volatility, has been fatal for countries like Cuba—generally for Latin America and the Caribbean—no matter what we're doing or not, given the adverse effects of getting caught from study material for their electoral battle.
On the other hand, many weather parts about US-Cuba overlook that Joe Biden is going to be the first US president with a brand new Cuban counterpart. If Obama went through with chips, as they would say in dominoes, emphasizing that he was not born when the Cuban Revolution triumphed, it's worth remembering that Diaz-Canel didn't either. He had nothing to do with Playa Girón, the missile crisis or the guerrillas in Latin America, nor did he take letters in the alliances with the USSR or the Tricontinental. If Obama was 30 years younger than his interlocutor Raul Castro, Biden could be the first U.S. president to talk to a Cuban party's head of state and secretary 18 years younger than him and whose last name is not Castro.
Anyone would say that this circumstance is highly favorable for progress in relationships. However, the previous experience tells us that, with the US, the stars tilt, but they do not force. I will then write down some political processes already underway that can align these stars in the direction of renormalization sooner rather than later.
Two weeks ago, I mentioned the likelihood that the new U.S. government team would prioritize the counter-reformation of Trumpism. This would include the large areas of problems of its global foreign policy: the European Union, China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, climate change, trade agreements, etc.
As we know, Cuba is not on the agenda of major problems. But that is precisely why it can serve as a less complicated and cautious demonstrative effect than turning relations with China and Iran and immigration politics. It was exactly that logic that prompted Obama to invest his last two cents of political capital on an issue as secondary as Cuba. Jeremy Bentham, the apostle of utilitarianism, would interpret it as achieving maximum profit at minimal cost, through an issue that, although small, has the applause of his allies and the rest of the world, as already known from experience.
Comparatively, sweeping the destruction of the Republican elephant into the glassware of our relations would not pose a major complication. Restoring remittances, travel, food and medicine sales and, above all, normalizing the consulate's work and the visa granting process in Havana can only have opposition among Miami's most bombastic Trumpists. I wonder if the experts who, from dissimilar balconies (EFE, Granma, El Toque...) seem to agree that Washington's policy towards Havana passes through Miami, would bet something on the real power of these rhyming to dictate it around the aforementioned topics.
The second requirement for change is the existence of an elaborate strategy to deal with Cuba. Some meteorologists question the reality of that vision, as if we were in a kind of zero-grade relationship. Describe yourself as a double-edged knife or Trojan horse, the same dog with another collar, or other novel metaphors... it's definitely not an enigma. The Presidential Directive on U.S.-Cuba relations, produced by the Obama administration in October 2016, and shared with joe joe joe biden, sang his triumphs loud and clear, as they say in auction, on one stick and another.
Can we have any idea where and who it's time to play that tune? We know that security issues are not decided in Senate Foreign Relations Committee or Florida legislature hearings, but in foreign policy governing bodies, historically decisive in relations with Cuba. If we give even a minimum of credit to bureaucratic policy models, to recommend the one that will be done towards Cuba, we should start by appreciating the communicating vessel with the Obama administration. The appointment of figures charged with leading national security and foreign policy from senior officials in the previous Democratic (and other more remote) governments include the National Security Council (Jake Sullivan), the State Department (Antony Blinken), Homeland Security (Alejandro Mayorkas), the intelligence community (Avril Haines) and the president's chief of office (Ron Klein).
All of them were already there between December 17, 2014 and January 20, 2017; and there is still a need to name a few more, from various hierarchies. For example, the ambassador to the UN (with rank in the NSC) and the president's special envoy for the climate (cabinet member) turn out to be an expert black career diplomat in Africa (Linda Thomas-Greenfield), and the former chancellor who opened the embassy in Havana (John Kerry). If the continuity of normalization had first and last names, this list would be eloquent.
On the other hand, finding a common thread for these designations could lead to dreams of reason. Let's say, someone might think that when Biden appoints a California lawyer born in Cuba to lead the agency in charge of counterterrorism, border control, transportation security, and immigration, which has negotiated and signed agreements with the MININT and MINFAR (those blacklisted Castroist agencies by Trump and company), he's giving a candle to Marco Rubio and Mario Díaz-Balart on politics toward Cuba.
Finally, let's go back to geopolitical reason and the global tango track. According to our previous history, the US-Cuba conflict has unfolded with elements and sands that exceed strictly bilateral space. If, instead of Miami's upside-down, a wide lens were used to look triangularly, how would their relations with the European Union, China and Russia intersect? To what extent could the US-Venezuela-Cuba triangle evolve? What will happen in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2021, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua and Honduras? In Argentina and Mexico? To what extent will the region's magnetic field, for causes and chances outside the two countries, move in a configuration conducive to the Cuba-US relationship?
To comment on these questions, with adherence to the logic of tango and the dance floor, we would have to explain the structure of Cuban foreign policy and its factors, within the framework of its relations with the world, rather than simply reflecting the conflict-cooperation with the US. What alliances, interests, convergences, partnerships and uncoverings govern it? Where do your strengths and weaknesses lie? How have they moved during the Trump era? What signals announce that you are ready or not for renormalization with the US? How do these external relations interact with domestic policy?
Understanding this interaction requires looking without polarized lenses at the process of reforms and the matrix of transition. Calibrating the US as a domestic factor in the transition involves thinking about it in the context of other factors and dynamics, such as relations between the two societies, and in no way as a negotiating agenda between governments. Although it is said easy, to put it in the words of Jorge Luis Borges, decipher "that new tango (...) it is a riddle, without lacking the perplexed variants, common places and reasoned discord of the commentators."
Taking into account that Díaz Canel could be elected as the first secretary of the PCC at the VIII Congress, in April 2021.
“In difficult times”: the tango of normalization (III)
Analyzing their relations, Cuba has changed much more than the United States in these almost three decades; the two countries still lack a great deal on their own terms; and the use of war in any of its forms is counterproductive to facilitate democratic changes within.
by Rafael Hernández December 12, 2020
I realized that the Americans were changing their gaze on Cuba when their questions began to change. The classic, foreseeable, had always been “what will happen when Fidel Castro dies?” However, one fine day, around 2011, the inevitable began to be something else: “How do you go about buying a house on the island?” Despite the fact that the Castros, and the system, remained the same, and that the Obama administration reigned, something different had touched a live nerve in their minds and hearts. If John Stuart Mill had been born in Cuba, he would have said that no liberal ideology could beat a little house on the beach.
Between how much I have learned with my American students, and also with the generations of their parents and grandparents, there’s plenty that could be said about these two questions. Although it seems anachronistic, the first contains very current lessons.
Being a frustrated molecular biochemist, I began to centrifuge the idea that Fidel was the cause of our not getting along, in search of its solid ingredients. The first response to “what will happen when …?” was clear: Raúl. Obvious. But as Edgar Allan Poe says in “The Purloined Letter,” the obvious often goes unnoticed. Since Raúl did not have a precisely liberal or reformist halo, my answer did not go down well. They looked at me the same way as a French journalist friend, every time Cuban politics does not go along with her way of seeing history (Stalin’s fault, she and Hanna Arendt would say).
My second comment to the Cuba post (Fidel) Castro put a question mark, in anticipation of the ineluctable. Fourteen years after Fidel passed the baton to Vice President Raúl, and after the latter initiated a reform plan, the expected transition in relations has ended up being longer than the special period. Not even four years after Fidel’s death is there a certainty that it will happen, despite all the changes since the Cold War, and the end of historical objections to Castroism. More than 30 years after Cuban troops withdrew from Southwest Africa, the Central American wars ended, and the Havana-Moscow axis disappeared, there seems to be something wrong there.
Why has the transition in relations not arrived? Shakespeare would say that there is a method to its madness, not simply an ideological or irrational motive. According to this method, the Cuban system, so contrary to common sense and human nature, has to fall. If it has not happened yet, despite the fact that the Castros are past the horizon, it could be attributed to the fact that they have not made an effort, as they should have. After all, just because something never went right doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying in the new circumstances.
A few days ago, an insightful correspondent for The New York Times precisely asked me about these new circumstances. In his question, in a certain way, my third comment to the old question about post-Castro Cuba was throbbing: despite everything that the U.S. governments have abhorred about Fidel and Raúl, they think twice before going against them, for they have somehow learned not to underestimate them. They have been small, but dangerous, so better trod carefully. A Harvard professor I met last century called soft power the ability that does not depend on economic or military force, nor on the much-touted symbolic power, but on making the entire country tense.
Now, what then? Let’s say, to put that question in the post-2018 context: to what extent are they convinced that President Miguel Díaz-Canel masters that soft power with equal skill?
I have learned that journalists keep their theses discreetly, and often use interviewees to confirm them, by the way, with all due respect. Well yes, I told the NYT correspondent, not only is Fidel gone, but, contrary to strings of expert predictions, Raúl’s public profile in Cuban politics has dropped a lot in the last two years. So, right off the bat, we have a new president 30 years younger, another rejuvenated government team, who do and project as if they were deciding for themselves. In other words, defending ideas and policies different from the previous ones.
We also have, by the way, another Constitution, which, beyond its legal significance, embodies a way of representing socialism that is different from the one defended for almost 60 years. In fact, it includes a structural transformation, whose narrative is based on economic reforms, but which from its very origin entails fundamental political changes.
Regardless of how it is seen in the macroeconomic power points, the reform process is experienced contradictory and even incongruous in daily life, crisscrossed by things as real and not very quantitative as people’s concerns and expectations. As if that were not enough, it unfolds in this year of the great pandemic.
Above and below all that, the biggest change since the 1990s is that another society has emerged. One that, according to sociologists, was already announced with signs of pre-crisis before the fall of the Wall, and has continued to grow in internal differentiation and diversity, in addition to becoming more unequal and much more talkative. It means that, in addition to a change in leadership; new actors and policies; another government, regional environments, pressures outside and inside; an unprecedented entry and exit of locals and tourists, a not very equitable double currency, shortages and blaming the government for everything that happens; in addition to this unprecedented social picture, a much more complex transition matrix is underway, and it is difficult to enclose it in a forecasting model.
All of that was there, by the way, before the U.S. elections and the events of November 27 in Havana.
I’m not going to comment on those events here; the more they circulate in official and alternative media, social networks and WhatsApp forums, letters and counter letters, the opaquer they become. I just mention them because they give me the opportunity to go back to our tango of normalization in difficult years, seen from both sides.
The construction of Cuban problems has always depended on the eyeglasses worn by the experts, who are a legion. Those who designed the Bay of Pigs invasion wore the same ones from the intervention in Guatemala in 1954. To explain Cuban politics in the 1980s, the Rand Corporation produced a psychopathological diagnosis of Fidel Castro, with syndromes taken from Greek mythology, hubris (excessive arrogance) and nemesis (righteous revenge).
Then came a best-seller of investigative journalism that demonstrated the imminent disintegration of the Cuban regime in 1993; a Catholic Church that was said to have played the role of mediation in the domestic conflict, as well as Pope Karol Wojtyła (John Paul II) in Poland; a Cuban transition portrayed in reams of political literature inspired by the models of Spain (1977), Chile (1989), Czechoslovakia, and even German unification (1989). The main problem with all these eyeglasses has, of course, been their degree of efficiency and usefulness.
Deciphering Cuban complexities through systems of equations such as the Arab Spring, the rebound effect of banned films, the magnet of social networks or influencers; identifying anti-racist, animal protector, feminist and LGBTIQ+ rights agendas as subversive; cataloging young people, artists and intellectuals, emigrants, private entrepreneurs and the market as soft spots (that is, capitalists) of the system…. All these polarized eyeglasses, which so different and even opposite actors use for their own ends, are found in the common notion that national security is at stake literally everywhere.
How the Cuban situation manages to be interpreted in that slightly apocalyptic way can only be explained by the prevalence of a common sense encrypted in cultural inertia and the reflections of the Cold War, its interfering stereotypes and autoimmune mechanisms, in ideological and intellectual terms. The populace tribunes would say “old wine in new wineskins.” But these phrases that everybody adores leave the criticism of the so-called democratic interventionism intact. As well as its counterpart, a democratic ideology on the defensive.
I have always doubted that U.S. governments care a lot about what is happening inside Cuba or any other country to decide what their interests are. But maybe I’m prejudiced. In any case, if this time they really wanted to respond to the changes, there would not be so many reasons for them to do so in the face of economic reforms, at least until now, in the face of the accumulation of transformations in the Cuban public sphere in the last quarter of a century.
The already existing civil society―not just the one that is announced as being born in 2020―speaks nineteen to the dozen, relentlessly criticizes the government’s policies, repeats phrases that less than 30 years ago would have been taken as politically reckless, manufactures art and literature with very political ingredients, directly messes with ideology on the stage of a theater or in a movie, sings heretical lyrics in popular music tunes, applauds comedians who mock the system’s institutions, dismisses and hugs those who leave the country or return, exalts and proudly displays the attributes of all the faiths practiced as never before, and does not hide to express its discomfort at any excess by a police officer, even when someone might say that there are more repressive police forces in other democracies out there.
None of that middle ground, naturally, has to cross the mind or the discourse of those who protests, with their own reasons, in the face of the same middle ground, against the censorship by an official, the suspicion exercised by some dependencies and the all-embracing power of those who abuse it.
It can be inferred from all the above that Cuba has changed much more than the United States in these almost three decades; the two countries still lack a great deal on their own terms; and the use of war in any of its forms is counterproductive to facilitate democratic changes within.
For Cuba, continuing that process, no matter what the United States does or does not do, is a political imperative, and also a challenge, because it cannot ignore its role as a domestic factor in Cuban life. Although for them the Cuban problem was minor, ignoring it and lacking a policy towards the island is not convenient for them either, if only because of the chorus of neighbors and allies who remind them. As long as its goal of influencing the processes within Cuba was maintained, its dilemma is printed on the handle of the embargo: isolate vs. influence. Sun Tzu would wonder if it is feasible to seal a fortress’s doors and windows with the art of war and, at the same time, seduce its occupants with the art of love.
Finally, what is the role of those pieces of our color that play on the opponent’s chessboard? Are they his pieces? Bishops or rooks? More like horses, moving in one direction and another? Do they have their own game, or do they move them, like pawns? Do we really know how they do it? Is it like the polls and the TV channels in Spanish say? What if they are not an irredeemable part of the other game, neither there nor here? Or if we don’t see them as pieces on that board? Could Cintio Vitier1 be right when he said that, if there were “young political, marginal, or antisocial skeptics” they were “our painful failure” and, “in any case, our criminals, our irresponsible, our anti-socials”?
Perhaps this issue has also become opaque by dint of talking about it.
However, it is worth considering it in an equanimous way, instead of breathing heavily on the wound, because an exercise such as negotiation, so crucial in a real democratic process, depends precisely on that margin. On the side of the institutions, the calibration of the response is decisive. As a wise old friend often says, in his baseball lingo, an out badly called at second base can be a disaster.
Cintio Vitier, “Martí en la hora actual de Cuba”, Juventud Rebelde, August 18, 1994, p. 3.
“In difficult times”: the tango of normalization (IV)
If the political will continues to be not to subordinate the relationship with emigrants to the political situation with the United States or with any other country, will we have to wait for the election of a new National Assembly to bring it closer to a new normal?
by Rafael Hernández January 1, 2021in Opinion
I’m curious that none of the observers of recent Cuban politics, not even my jurist friends, have commented on the planned legislation on demonstration and assembly in the implementation plan of the new Constitution.
According to official sources, the approved schedule for 2019-2022 identified it with the title “Rights of demonstration and assembly” and proposed to consider it in September 2020. This was derived directly from Article 56 of the Constitution, where it is stated that “rights of assembly, demonstration and association, for lawful and peaceful purposes, are recognized by the State.”
To give readers an idea, several main laws were planned in 2020, including Territorial Planning, Courts, Criminal Procedure, Housing, Public Health, Claim of constitutional rights and National defense. Much was postponed in the year of the pandemic, not just in quantity. It was not the case, by the way, of the Law on Associations, scheduled for 2022 in the same schedule, a date that has just been ratified by the National Assembly of People’s Power (ANPP). As for the decree-law on demonstration and assembly, its normative status was “modified” and postponed until the next legislature (April 2023), along with others of higher rank, such as defense and national security, citizenship, land, migration and foreigners.
If the latest events in November put the cursor on the need to implement Article 56, it should not be forgotten that the issue of Cuban emigrated citizens belongs to that same larger political plane, even though the constitutional text does not speak of them. Institutionalizing the relationship between the State, Cuban society, and its members inside and outside the island also depends on how the pending laws on citizenship, immigration, migration, and others, give new content to that relationship. If the political will continues to be not to subordinate the relationship with emigrants to the political situation with the United States or with any other country, will we have to wait for the election of a new National Assembly to bring it closer to a new normal.
Regardless of how this question is answered, returning to the tango step with the United States that concerns us in this series, the question of the role of Cuban Americans has a different and its own connotation.
I had previously put on the table some rather provocative questions about the place of Cuban Americans as actors in American society and politics, and about their impact, supposed or real, on Cuban political dynamics.
Are they pieces on the U.S. board? Do they have their own game?
Are they being moved like pawns moving in one direction? Or rather like chess knights, walking one way and another, back and forth? Do we know how they really do it? Is it like the polls and the TV channels in Spanish say? What if they were not an irremissible part of any game, neither on the side of white nor on black? If we stopped considering them pieces on that board, why would the vast majority not be?
The charged atmosphere of the electoral campaign and its results permeated the fair examination of these questions, within the great theater of politics. Not two months have passed, and yet now such controversial reasoning may seem remote. Let me recall that, for some, the strategic weight of Florida in the electoral vote, the supposedly decisive factor of the Cuban-American vote in Florida and that vote’s radical alignment with Trump could decide the elections, made of many bits, as a lady from Hialeah talking about some kidney beans would say.
By the way, the television and Youtubesque bombardment that the electoral campaign raised in Cuban Miami seemed to replicate the old culture of the enclave. However, the wavelength with the vociferous Trumpism of artistic personalities of the stature of Los Tres de La Habana and Boncó Quiñongo, communicators in the style of Alex Otaola and Carlos Otero, Cuban-American Republican activists and others who barely have residency on the streets of Hialeah.
It is explained by a retro trend. That is to say, it does not really respond, even if it seems like it, to a leap towards the culture of historical exile, as some analysts point out, but, as the anthropologist Ariana Hernández-Reguant documents in her field studies, to a leap towards acculturation: they want to become Americans at a double pace, for which there is no better flag than America First and the cult of Donald Trump. So far, Schopenhauer would say, the world of Cuban-American politics as will and representation.
Today we know that Trump won Florida cleanly; that Cuban Americans seem to have voted more for Trump, although they were not the ones who gave him the state; that this was not the decisive field of the national electoral battle; that Trump lost it and that, if he was dangerously close to winning it, that had nothing to do with the vote of the Cuban-American counties in Florida.
The unexpected Trumpism of a part of these Cuban Americans, as well as their previous enthusiastic Obamaism, has been analyzed by sociologist Guillermo Grenier, which saves me from elaborating on its significance: it is synchronized with the cycles of the administration in Washington. Although there is a certain historical pattern here too, dating back to 1960, the FIU poll has captured, in its years of existence to date, the contradictory bias of the political sentiments of the Cuban community in Miami counties.
If they were introduced into a Cartesian rational matrix, these results would produce a kind of short circuit: they want the embargo to be maintained and even that an eventual attack against military targets be considered, but to continue remittances and parcel shipments, to facilitate direct postal service and visas in Havana, and above all, that the trips not be touched.
That country that is blocked and bombed, and in the meantime visited, would be a great subject of study in the field of political psychology. As for the Cuban-American factor in the most recent Cuba policy, let us take, as an example, the recent event of November 27. As is known, Congressman Mario Díaz-Balart asked Congress
for support for “the brave activists in favor of democracy in Cuba, who are risking their lives at this very moment,” and congratulated President Trump “for his solidarity with the Cuban people by imposing harsh sanctions against the Cuban dictatorship.” It would be difficult, however, to prove that Díaz-Balart caused the reaction of Undersecretary of State Michael Kozak or the logistical comings and goings of the charge d’affaires, Timothy Zúñiga-Brown, in relation to the San Isidro Movement.
When Kozak affirms that “this policy (Trump’s) is forcing a small negotiation between the government and the people, at this optimal moment in the history of Cuba,” or when he said, from “his many years of dealing with Cubans,” that the new situation justifies the need to “refine” the Cuba policy, “with the objective of strengthening civil society and the private sector, but not the regime,” he omits any reference to Cuban Americans as a source of legitimation.
The same thing happens when Trump’s State Department defines the role of the representatives of the U.S. government in Cuba as “amplifying the cries of dissidents, activists, independent journalists and the religious community that defends their rights to associate and to pray freely.”
After that refined convergence, so similar to those of previous administrations, the inevitable reaction of Biden’s new national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, is barely contained in a tweet, which doesn’t mention the cause of the historic exile nor does it directly refer to the regime change policy.
Given that Trump has mutated from winner to loser in a few days, he has even been abandoned by Senator Marco Rubio, his closest companion on the rostrum when visiting Miami, whose key role in Cuba policy, according to some experts, became evident in that scenic proximity. Now that there are no Cubans in important positions in the White House to blame for this policy, but only professional officials in a foreign relations bureaucracy, who continue to shoot until the end (as in westerns), some experts argue that Biden will go to courtthese voters, so that they will go over to the Democratic Party in the next elections, by means of the original promise to give them the Cuban regime tied hands and feet on a tray (that’s a saying). Perhaps Biden’s team, which is not new to this situation, will look at the FIU poll and their conflicting wish list, and come up with a more realistic way to capture the Cuban-American vote, assuming that that goal was keeping them awake.
The first time I landed in Miami, I was amazed to hear the adventures of Los Tres Villalobos and La Tremenda Corte, my favorite shows at the age of ten, on the radio. Some journalists who started visiting Cuba in Obama’s short summer and riding the Buicks and Chevies that we have renamed “almendrones,” said that it was like doing it in a time machine, and that Cuba lived in another geological age. I told them not to be carried away by impressions, and to look at the Hyundai or Lada engine that they carried inside.
A sociologist friend has told me that journalists will never stop being carried away by impressions, no matter how much data one gives them. I don’t think it’s always like this; but I am convinced that my first impression of Little Havana, with Los Villalobos and Trespatines, the Caballero Funeral Home and the Fifth Avenue clock, did not capture what was moving underneath. It is an image that one chooses to believe and that, in the best case, constitutes nothing more than a representation, to which underlying causes are attributed, really unlikely until they can be demonstrated.
There is no PCR that makes it possible to measure Trumpism in the vein of Cubans who enter through the airport or of those who stay in Miami. In case they were asymptomatic, it is worth as much as considering them carriers of a flu that only thrives in favorable related conditions.
The question is to what extent the real and the virtual can be distinguished in their impact on future Cuba. My favorite question in the FIU poll, which I don’t know if Guillermo continues to ask, was the following: “Would you return to Cuba if democracy and freedom [those that we already know] were restored?” I remember 83% said no.
For an exile, it’s peculiar.
But maybe not so much. Some Vietnamese perceived as exiles have returned, such as Nguyen Cao Ky, the last president of South Vietnam, who has returned to make his peace with the Communist Party. It is unlikely that Cao Ky and other millions who return, will have tea with their relatives and the municipal Communist Party at the Lunar New Year feast, and contribute to the 1,000 times more beautiful Vietnam that Ho Chi Minh advocated, have the best opinion of the political regime, even after all the renovations. Among those overseas Vietnamese, there is everything, even a Third Republic in Exile, which, from Orange County―the Dade County of the Vietnamese―constantly promotes in Congress a motion to condemn Vietnam’s government for the violation of human rights. The motion rarely passes and if it does, no one pays much attention to it.
By the way, I have around a copy of the draft law on demonstrations and assembly that the Vietnamese National Assembly had been discussing for two years the first time I was there.
Although that parliament does not admit another party, experts describe it as very argumentative and diverse, so it thoroughly debates its legislative projects. Seven years later, they have not yet agreed on the aforementioned law.
A comparative vision always provides an in-depth perspective on our own problems. I don’t have space to comment here on how the opposition press fares in Vietnam or other current issues such as freedom of expression and human rights. The fact is that few countries dance tango with the U.S. like Vietnam, including this administration. My economist friends will say that the Vietnamese reforms explain everything. I suspect not.