Barack Obama's plans for Cuba

February 27, 2015

A second round of talks between US and Cuban diplomats began in Washington on February 27, with the aim of restoring diplomatic relations.

US President Barack Obama announced, in what he termed the most significant Cuba policy shift in more than 50 years, that he will pursue diplomatic relations and urge Congress to dismantle the US blockade of Cuba.

Rather than siege and isolation, the US will now pursue a policy of “freedom and openness”, based on “people-to-people engagement”. In other words, US citizens would be free to travel to Cuba and US corporations would be free to trade with and invest in Cuba.

“We are taking steps to increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba,” Obama said in his December 17 announcement.

Obama’s concept of freedom does not embrace the sovereign right of the Cuban nation to choose its economic system and maintain its socialist model free from US interference.

Quite the opposite: Obama hopes that an influx of American tourists and, eventually, US corporations will gradually erode that socialism from within. Rather than implode, the Cuban Revolution would fade away.

US isolation

Ironically, the prevailing US policy of siege and isolation — which dates back to the early 1960s — has failed. The US has merely succeeded in isolating itself. As Obama noted, “no other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions”.

Cuba’s allies, especially Venezuela, have thrown Cuba’s besieged post-capitalist economy a lifeline.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Cuba lost about 85% of its foreign trade almost overnight. The Cuban economy contracted 35%, the US ratcheted up the blockade and some predicted the imminent collapse of Cuba’s government. Today, the diversification of Cuba’s trading partners softens the impact of the blockade and renders it increasingly ineffective.

US allies such as Canada and the European Union resent the fact that their own citizens can be prosecuted in US courts for doing business with Cuba. On the other hand, Cuba is one of the few countries where foreign investors face no competition from US corporations — thanks to the blockade. US corporations “should not be put at a disadvantage”, Obama said.

Diplomatically, the increased isolation of the US is glaring. When the US severed diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1962 and used its influence to coerce other countries to do likewise, every state in the Western hemisphere — with the sole exception of Mexico — followed its lead.

Cuba was excluded from the US-led Organisation of American States (OAS) supposedly for lacking democracy and human rights, notwithstanding that, from Chile to Honduras, the US had overthrown elected governments and propped up dictatorships in the region.

Today, the US cannot even exclude Cuba from its own hemispheric forum — Obama bowed to Latin American pressure after Ecuador threatened to boycott OAS summits unless Cuba is invited. Cuba's President Raul Castro will now attend the OAS summit in April.

Obama tried to salvage something from this diplomatic humiliation by insisting that Cuba's US-financed dissidents be represented at the OAS summit. At the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit in Costa Rica in January, Raul Castro responded by suggesting inviting representatives of the hemisphere's indigenous peoples, peasants, workers, women, students and the other popular sectors.

CELAC is an initiative of Venezuela and Cuba. All Latin American and Carribean nations are members, but the US and Canada are excluded. CELAC now overshadows the OAS and could well condemn it to irrelevance.

Obama’s Cuba policy shift is partly, then, a response to waning US hegemony in its own backyard. Opening a US embassy in Havana has taken on an air of urgency, with US officials keen to demonstrate to the OAS summit in April that Obama is serious about a new era in US-Cuba relations. This urgency stacks the negotiating cards in Cuba's favour.

Ruling class divisions

There is a consensus among the US capitalist elite and its political representatives that the Cuban Revolution must be undermined and defeated. Addressing opponents of his new Cuba policy, Obama said he shares their “commitment to liberty and democracy [code for capitalist restoration in Cuba]. The question is how we uphold that commitment.”

The failure of the US blockade to achieve its core objective (creating economic hardship to fuel demoralisation, unrest and opposition to Cuba's socialist system) is evident to the realists within the US ruling class, Obama among them. As Obama put it, one cannot do “the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result”.

Supporters of the blockade counter that dismantling it would only play into the hands of “the Castro regime”. Cuba will hail the US rapprochement as a propaganda victory, they point out. Revenues from US tourism, trade and investment would fill the coffers of Cuba's communist state. Obama wants to unilaterally relinquish his biggest bargaining chip: the blockade.

While deep divisions remain, the tide is clearly turning against the blockade. Obama’s December 17 speech marks, in all probability, the beginning of its end.

Behind these strategic divisions lurk powerful material interests. The anti-Castro lobby, led by a coterie of Cuban-American millionaires and billionaires, still wields a considerable influence in Washington's corridors of power. Old dreams — of returning to Cuba to take possession of mansions, factories and farms — die hard.

On the other hand, powerful sectors of US capital want Congress to scrap the blockade, so they can get on down to Cuba and make big bucks. The US oil industry wants a piece of the action in Cuba's deep-water oilfields in the Gulf of Mexico. From Vermont apple growers to Mississippi rice farmers, US agribusiness wants to sell more food to Cuba.

US airline and tourism companies drool over Cuba's pristine beaches, colonial facades and cultural effervescence. Southern US port operators and shipping firms are preparing for a post-blockade scenario in which Cuba is the vibrant hub of Caribbean trade and tourism.

Cuba's vast new port facilities at Mariel, about 40km west of Havana, point to that possible future. For the time being at least, the sectors of US capital that stand to gain most from a dismantling of the blockade can only watch as their competitors submit investment proposals for the Mariel Special Development Zone that surrounds the new port.

Changes in Cuba

While Cuba has yet to fully emerge from the post-Soviet “Special Period”, crisis management has given way to establishing the bases — political, economic and ideological — for what Raul Castro terms a prosperous and sustainable socialism. Realists among the US elite no longer believe that another few years of blockade-induced privations and suffering can precipitate a political crisis in Cuba. Cuba's working people endured far worse, in the early 1990s, without rising up against their government.

Instead of seeking to undermine Cuban socialism by blockading it, the pro-engagement wing of the US elite seeks to take advantage of, and influence, recent changes to Cuba's socialist model. These changes — such as the promotion of self-employment, small businesses and cooperative management of state property — do not respond to US demands that Cuba adopt a free market economy and Western-style elections.

Rather, they respond to the need to revitalise Cuba's socialist project so that it can endure long after Fidel Castro's generation has gone. As veteran Cuban journalist Luis Sexto aptly observed: “Cuba, rigid for many years, shakes off the starch that immobilised it to change what is obsolete … without compromising the solidity of the Revolution's power.”

While not in response to US demands for change, some of these changes do coincide with US demands. For example, Obama said in his December 17 speech that under his new Cuba policy, the US would seek to support “the emerging Cuban private sector” and noted, approvingly, that “Cuba has made reforms to gradually open up its economy”.

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