United States-Cuba: To peel an onion (I)
I have found that the closest thing to cold-examining US-Cuba relations is peeling an onion; there is shell and successive layers.
Whenever I talk about Cuba-USA. In the US, I warn you that when it comes to cyclones, the ball game and relations with the North, all Cubans know a lot.
However, differences arise when dealing with these issues. When a cyclone approaches, no one hesitates to listen to the meteorologists. The only credible predictions about baseball are made by seasoned veterans. When it comes to the relationship with the United States, anyone throws the snails. The same in official, state, non-state, private, anti-government, pro-government media. Literally.
Perhaps because politics and international relations are more fodder for conversation than for knowledge. Or perhaps due to global currents, such as the devaluation of the political, its reduction to the content of speeches, the rejection of everything that smacks of rhetoric, the declining credit of government institutions. In our case, it could also be due to the very Cuban tendency to confuse the causes of everything (what we don't know how to explain) with ideological motivations, from here or there.
If a physicist, a filmmaker, a doctor, an engineer, or a chef, say a nonsense in their own fields, they risk being discredited. When any of them judges politics, the same thing does not happen. As if it were simple opinions or beliefs. And in matters of belief, there is no truth or falsehood.
Having researched US-Cuba relations for some time, and having been wrong many times, I have discovered that the closest thing to examining them in the cold is peeling an onion.
The first thing is to put on glasses, against tearing; and go removing the shell, and separating its successive layers. The shell becomes the wish list that everyone has the sovereign right to make regarding those relationships and their future; but better book for another time. To reason them out, the next step is to separate the cluster of topics around which Cuba and the US have convergent or divergent policies, which could fill drawers. Then it would be necessary to peel the repertoire of accumulated problems, a long list that is identified as "the dispute." To get to the short list, which is the negotiable agenda of the moment.
In the drawer of topics is, let's say, the nuclear issue. Having been the only country in the region threatened by a nuclear attack, Cuba refused for a long time to give up arming itself, with the same right as the US. Why should they and not us? In the end, he would sign the Treaty of Tlatelolco , which outlaws nuclear weapons in the region, in 1995, almost twenty years after it was proclaimed. He did not do it precisely to go against the US, but rather in response to the call of Latin Americans, and Mexico in particular. And he decided to do so, by the way, in a world where the proliferation of nuclear weapons outside the great powers is spreading like wildfire.
On the long list of the "bilateral dispute" has always been, for example, the Guantánamo naval base. Strictly speaking, some other topics of this "dispute" are not exactly bilateral. For example, the Cuba-Venezuela relationship, put as a reason for the reinforced isolation measures applied by the Trump administration. Let's say that, in order to discern whether or not these accumulated problems are part of a negotiable agenda, we must relate them to the scale of priorities, and also to the spectrum of reality.
For example, the Cuban side has said that Guantanamo cannot be waived; but it is not his priority. As for relations with Venezuela on the US-Cuba agenda, the evolution of the US-Venezuelan conflict has been in charge of putting them where they are going. As has been seen, the ball was not exactly on Cuba's side, where the Bolton-Claver Carone-Rubio brand rhetoric had wanted to place it.
As self-evident as all of the above may be, some observers confuse the content of negotiable agendas with wish lists or pronouncements. Thus, they put “human rights and individual liberties”, “economic opening and legal security”, “approvingly (sic) of a greater and irreversible opening”; “formal, legal and real recognition of entities and organizations of civil society”. The approach attributes to the diplomatic teams that meet with Cuba an inability to differentiate between priority items on a negotiable agenda and political goals to pursue.
If, on the contrary, one decides to learn from what happened, one will see that Obama affirmed from the beginning that the US did not intend to intervene in internal changes, that they were only "a thing of the Cubans", although to the US. he would like Cuba to be more democratic, pluralistic, etc. Raúl Castro, for his part, had declared long before that he was ready to “dialogue on any subject with the United States.” Of course, talking or discussing is not the same as negotiating, much less reaching agreements. Starting with the most difficult is not what a negotiator does.
If, in order to analyze the dynamics of a possible negotiation, one took the trouble to appreciate what happened between the two sides in the recent past, one would verify, first of all, that almost all the memorandums of understanding (2015-2017) are still alive, although they They keep in hibernation. And if you look closely at the main layers of that onion, you'll see that more than a third of the deals focused on national security issues.
Of course, we must not go back to December 2014, nor assume that we are back to the future we believed in then. Now, is it that this dynamic consisted only of the will of Presidents Obama and Raúl Castro? In an unrepeatable situation? Didn't it reflect national interests at stake that are still there?
In other words, those 23 MoUs no longer address priority issues for both sides? Is the US interested in preserving areas of cooperation with Cuba under the terms provided for in those agreements? Nothing less than about migration, interception of drug trafficking, air and naval security; prosecution of crime, money laundering, passport forgery, human trafficking; coordination between the Coast Guard Service (USCG) and Border Guard Troops (TG), including joint action to anticipate and act against oil spills in deep waters.
Since it takes two to tango,As they say there, is Cuba willing to respond to any action, no matter how partial or restricted, that releases or reduces the iron fence of the multilateral and global embargo (ie, the blockade), even if it is limited or partial? To do so even when the declared objective of these exemptions is to erode socialism from within, and strengthen a sector that they see as a herald of capitalism (private entrepreneurs), its main beneficiary? Even if admitting a privileged treatment for these actors would have the rejection of those who, on the side here, also suspect them as potential allies of the United States? Of those who only tolerate them as a "necessary evil" foreign to the system, despite the fact that the Constitution and the laws identify them as legitimate subjects of a new socialist economic and social order?
Given that all these agreements amount to mutual confidence measures (MCMs), as strategic experts call them, is Cuba willing to continue to trust institutions of the national security establishment , such as Homeland Security, FBI, DEA, USCG? To come to an understanding with the US armed forces occupying the Guantánamo naval base, to the point of dialogue, coordination and cooperation, in joint exercises that preserve the security of both sides? To update agreements and sign new ones, giving them the benefit of trust? Even though an eventual US administration might push them all back, or put them into hibernation again?
Instead of speculating about what is possible, what is next, or what is desirable on the part of Cuba, one could listen to the answers to these questions from a vice minister of the Minrex and senior officials from the Minint at an academic event on bilateral relations held in Havana, In the past week.
In the panel on security issues, the cooperation achieved up to mid-2018, the date contacts ceased, under pressure from the White House and Trump's State Department, was shown in great detail. For those of us who think that politics consists more of actions than phrases, the most impressive thing was the degree of rapport between institutions on both sides. At times, I had the feeling that these were two countries with not only normal relations, but very good ones.
In spite of everything, some commentators there and their epigones still often wonder what Cuba gave up, in response to "everything the US conceded." under Obama. To verify this, it is enough to see the balance of uncertainty on both sides.
Those national security institutions that have led the way in Cuba since 1960, despite pressure from the anti-communist Cuban-American lobby inside and outside of Congress, have reached agreements with less fear that they will be canceled or frozen on this side.
On the other hand, as is the case with all of Latin America and the Caribbean, Cuba has had to get used to seeing its relations with the United States suffer "collateral damage" due to the fluctuations between administrations, and depending on the general or partial electoral cycles, which either they could be called “even year syndrome”. The agreements can become water with salt by virtue of an upcoming election.
Will we have a guarantee that this inertia will not run its course in 2023, an odd year?
The main obstacle between Cuba and the US is not the blockade, but the legacy of mistrust. Some readers might ask: If cooperation around these issues of common interest is likely to resume, will progress on the negotiable agenda take us back to where we were in 2017, when Obama's short summer ended? Will building trust get back on track? A conservative answer would be: too soon to tell. Mine is: it depends on invisible currents on both sides.
When they ask me what the weakest link in the blockade is, I say that people-to-people contact —that is, travel. First, because the freedom to travel ban is the most absurd of all bans, in terms of American political culture. Second, because I don't know anyone who comes to Cuba who doesn't end up reviewing their stereotypes about the country and its people, including their ideas and behaviors. Third, because if those who leave “vote with their feet”, according to the popular adage in migration studies, those who visit also express very tangible interests and motivations, although not precisely ideological ones.
If we know that from 2017 to 2019, for the first time, more than a million annual visitors arrived from the US to the island, most of whom were not Cuban-Americans, the figures for 2022, the first year post COVID-19 They are eloquent. According to data from the Mintur, until November the Cubans from there were the second largest group of visitors after Canadians, with a quarter of a million; and the third were the other Americans, more than 85 thousand; above Spanish, German, French, and Cubans in other countries.
Despite the deterioration in bilateral relations, the rampant economic crisis and its effects on daily life, the ban on staying in many hotels, the placement of Cuba on the State Department's list of terrorist countries, and other adversities, they visited the island more residents in the US, Cubans and non-Cubans, than from any other country in Europe, Latin America, or the rest of the world.
What do these data mean to assess trends in relations between the two countries, which may continue in 2023? Although the policies in Cuba are not guided by the logic of the relationship with the United States, but by the search for effective responses to the crisis, to the problems and needs of the transition to the new order, to what extent does what happens in Cuba —not only in the economy, but in politics, culture, public debate, laws— can it directly influence these relations?
Getting to those layers of the onion naturally requires slow peeling.
United States-Cuba: to peel an onion (II and end)
Learning to live with them, with benefits and inevitable challenges, and to deal with the challenges of peace, is a way of anticipating a future that may arrive sooner than imagined.
This is a propitious occasion to remember that it was Ho Chi Minh, not the CIA or USAID, who had the idea of creating, at the height of the war, the people-to-people track. It would be the communicating vessel with the anti-war movement in the United States, to consolidate a political and social combat front and contribute significantly to simply weakening the military force.
That Vietnamese strategy was not limited to resisting in the theater of war. In addition, it forced the enemy to fight on several fronts at the same time, including the moral one. In this, its troops were exhausted, subjected to increasing political isolation, also within the United States.
If it is a question of thinking about Cuban policy towards the United States today, are those Vietnamese lessons of any use?
The reader will tell me that I am dreaming of a Cuba that is for the United States like the Vietnam War. Or that it has the sympathies it had in the 1960s among the progressive and civil rights movements in the United States. Naturally not. However, it is relevant to think about that Ho strategy. Despite the vast differences, his lessons of realism and intelligence remain. As well as the attachment to the principles that founded the cause of national liberation and the ideology of the socialist revolution in Southeast Asia.
In the previous article I mentioned that the weakest link in the blockade is people-to-people contact. And that, despite the blacklist of terrorist countries, the more than 240 Trump measures and everything that comes with them; the acute economic crisis; the anxieties of everyday life; the ban on staying in numerous hotels; despite the return to the mirror of the tropical gulag and the reflection of “the repressive scenes of July 11” and “people fleeing to freedom”…. Despite all that black cloud, large numbers of Americans and a quarter of a million Cuban Americans visited Cuba in 2022.
Having reviewed the scene of uncertainties that continues to characterize U.S. policy toward Cuba, and the factors that frame it, I wondered if anything could be done here to take steps toward a more normal relationship. And, although the compass of Cuban policies at this moment cannot be other than the search for effective responses to the crisis, to the problems and needs of the transition to the new order based on the 2019 Constitution, I wondered to what extent what happens in Cuba, both in the economy and in politics, culture, public debate, laws, could directly affect these relations.
Penetrating the layers of the problem, beyond the legitimate and heartfelt wishes and hopes of one and all, requires peeling them back with a cool head.
Cuba has managed to get almost the entire United Nations to condemn the U.S. multilateral, global, extraterritorial embargo, summarized in the term blockade. It has been a repeated victory for Cuban diplomacy. Having reached the 30th voting, however, it can be seen that the armored defense of that blockade has prevailed. Not only do bilateral transactions remain at a standstill, but around the world commercial and financial institutions, corporations, banks, continue to fear the implications of acting against it — including those of our allies.
Obama’s short summer demonstrated that Cuba and the United States had common interests, on which more than twenty agreements could be built; and that the political will of the two governments was enough for the confrontational tone of the Cold War to vanish. That a U.S. president could visit the island; appearing on the most popular comedy show and attending a ball game at the Latino stadium; meet in public with the civil society chosen by him and with TV coverage and, even, fulfill the rite of meeting in private with the organized opposition.
Despite the dissatisfaction with the rapprochement, not only in Miami, but also in Havana, what happened in those twenty-five months showed that Cuba was prepared to respond to the dynamics of normalization and, in particular, to accept the challenges of the people-to-people track.
Later it would be revealed that a presidential election over there was enough for the progress to be frozen, and a part even reversed. Six years have passed, and we continue to lament that fatality, as if the time of relations had been put on hold and we were trapped in some kind of limbo.
However, that probability was always part of the premises of normalization. It is a process that does not occur in a test tube or contained in MOUs. In addition, it suffers from the contradictions of politics.
Instead of the daily complaint about the bad luck of the blockade, shouldn’t we learn from what happened, and continue to prepare for more normal relations with the United States? Instead of remaining stuck in the alley of miracles, waiting for those who can push towards the recovery of the other side, and want to do it, what is within our reach that does not require resources, but rather political decisions?
If it’s a question of people-to-people initiatives, the first thing to note is that they do not depend on the institutions in charge of foreign policy. For the existing Cuban civil society to contribute to multiplying the channels of meta-diplomacy, internal policies are required to facilitate it.
The example of Vietnam is inspiring. A broad coalition of organizations and groups called the Nation Front actively managed people-to-people relations. The coalition, capable of communicating with very diverse sectors of U.S. society, included social, labor, youth, religious, cultural, and also political organizations, such as the Viet Cong, the Democratic Party and the Socialist Party of Vietnam. Under the arch of the Vietnam Nation Front there was room for various ideological expressions, in a wide left-wing, nationalist and progressive spectrum.
Let’s say one of these organizations, the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations (VUFO) has been much more than an interlocutor with solidarity groups in the world. Its functions have included, for example, “diversifying and multilateralizing fraternal relations, to promote the cause of the defense of the Nation of the Vietnamese people”; “encouraging overseas Vietnamese to orient to their nation and support activities that enhance friendly and cooperative relations between Vietnam and other countries in economy, culture, education, science, technology”; as well as taking charge of everything that falls within “people-to-people diplomacy.”
Those Vietnamese who reside outside the country (the majority in Orange County, California) do not constitute a socially and ideologically homogeneous group. Their political representatives in the state legislature and in Washington are not exactly sympathetic to the Communist Party of Vietnam, rather the opposite. But their relations with the government of Hanoi do not go through the connection to the U.S. political system. They go through a policy built outside of U.S.-Vietnam bilateral relations. It is based on legitimate interests towards a common nation, the promotion of their standard of living, culture, economic development, religious creeds, traditions.
In the case of Cuba-United States, people-to-people relations have occurred rather spontaneously. The churches, for example, have taken the initiative, especially since the years of the Special Period. They have interacted with their counterparts from both sides, facilitated visits, exchange programs (including donations and charity actions towards vulnerable groups). Of course, this flow makes use of prerogatives granted by regulations and established policies that enshrine religious freedom and church-state relations.
Other exchanges have been academic, cultural, scientific, developed since the 1980s. Against the grain of difficulties and restrictions due to lack of visas; little access to field research, technologies, databases, and larger-scale student exchange programs by both sides. Although Cuban policy has generally supported these initiatives, the exchanges have had as protagonists teachers, artists, scientists, and other intellectuals who have managed to overcome the legacy of suspicion and distrust enthroned in our institutions.
Despite these advances, professional associations, unions, student and youth organizations on the island could have a much more active presence in relations. As with the many organizations that express, in the United States, social movements such as women’s liberation, LGBT+, civil rights, environmental protection, community interests….
Cuba finally promulgated a Law of Enterprises, which allows micro, small and medium-sized enterprises. But it has not just given birth to an Association Law. In theory, under the current law, issued almost forty years ago, there could be an Association of MSMEs — although my acquaintances in the sector consider it unlikely. If tomorrow the Alabama Chamber of Commerce wanted to meet with representatives of the private sector, it would do so with a group of entrepreneurs selected at random or deliberately by the person in charge of coordinating the meeting. The absence of an institutionalization that represents and galvanizes their interests and purposes harms the private sector, but also the country. Especially since institutions are not built overnight.Of course, civil society is much more than ventures and churches. The first time I had a long stay in the United States, I slipped into a municipal assembly, in which the neighbors exercised direct democracy, a town meeting. Listening to parents intervene around the problems of the schools, and the head of education of the municipality responding to them, sounded familiar to me. How could we find out that we have things in common in the exercise of government at the local level if we don’t know each other? Or is it that someone fears that we will catch capitalism by sharing how we solve things on both sides?
As regards “sister cities,” “subnational” foreign relations generated by local governments and institutions, they can exist and multiply, like so many others, despite the blockade. Increasing the contact surface between both societies contributes to opening holes in the wall. Make it look more like a sponge or Swiss cheese.
It is about learning to live with them, with benefits and inevitable challenges, and to deal with the challenges of peace. It is a way of anticipating a future that may come sooner than imagined. Drawing strength from internal changes to renew foreign relations, with the world and with the United States, is also learning about ourselves. After all, wasn’t that the Revolution?