New Internationalist

Obama’s Cuba challenge

July 2009

In a few short months President Barack Obama has moved quickly on a range of important policy issues, including US-Cuba relations. The tough economic embargo imposed by the US in 1962 is still in place but there have been small steps to reduce its impact.

The island is now widely accepted as a legitimate member of the Latin American community of nations and almost all countries across the region have called for an end to the blockade. US businesses are anxious to pounce on the Cuban market and even prominent Republicans now oppose the embargo.

As Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura Fuentes argues, the US embargo has accomplished the exact opposite of what was intended. It’s both stymied political change and completely failed to stimulate either freedom or democracy.

It’s important to remember that before an end to the US embargo of Cuba became even remotely conceivable, certain major international developments had to take place: the profound political shift in Latin America, the moving election of the first black president of the United States (a man, moreover, committed to change in its widest sense) and the financial and economic cataclysm that has shaken the capitalist system to its roots. Without these events the commercial, economic and financial embargo/blockade of Cuba, decreed 47 years ago (since February 1962) may have continued for who knows how long in its perennial form, condemned by many in international forums, denounced by the Cuban Government, suffered by the Cuban people and kept in place by successive US administrations that believed it could force political change in Havana.

But the change that Washington was after never came and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to recognize, finally, the clear failure of the US policy towards Cuba. In his speech to the Fifth Summit of the Americas meeting in Port of Spain, Trinidad, last April, President Barack Obama went even further, suggesting: ‘I think that we can move Cuban-American relations in a new direction.’ He made it clear that he was not talking this way just to look good in a setting where the lack of representatives from Cuba and the problem of the embargo were recurring issues.

Thus far there have been more words than action. But there is no doubt that a new wind is blowing. The Obama administration eliminated restrictions on travel to Cuba by Cubans living in the US and on remittances to family members on the island. And there is the possibility that new contracts will be negotiated to improve communications between the US and Cuba. It is no accident that after those initiatives President Raul Castro expressed to the new administration in Washington his openness to ‘discuss anything – human rights, freedom of the press, political detainees’ with only one condition: that talks be conducted ‘between equals, without the minimum shadow cast on our sovereignty’.

But President Obama, an enemy of empty rhetoric, could not escape the usual formulae, and noted that Cuba would have to take steps towards reconciliation and demonstrate its desire for change to bring about the greatest possible understanding between the countries.

What he seems to have forgotten is that the embargo was an indispensable ally of the Cuban Government. For decades it generated considerable political capital and international solidarity and was used deftly by Havana both to justify domestic policy and to be the scapegoat for many of the shortages that made life on the island more difficult. It’s for these reasons that the elimination of the embargo is not an urgent matter for the Cuban Government – even though it will ease various economic and social problems that are unpredictable and therefore risky for the status quo. Cuba has already demonstrated that it can survive without the support of the defunct socialism of the former Soviet bloc and despite the strengthened blockade of the Bush years.

Perhaps the most important element to bear in mind is whether the changes that should be introduced in the Cuban economy and society will be a response to the new climate of understanding, or whether they will be dictated by the realities of a country desperate for ‘structural and conceptual’ changes.

It seems inevitable that certain changes will come, albeit slowly, delayed and scaled back. There are many things that need to be fixed urgently because they are a burden on the daily life of Cubans and threaten the future of the social system far more than the embargo. A brief list would include:

  • the proverbial economic inefficiency of the island which has been incapable of meeting the many needs of the country, even in areas like agriculture;

  • the social erosion seen in the marginalization of sectors of Cuban society and the tendency of many young people to emigrate;

  • the inability of the machinery of production to resolve problems like the housing shortage (half a million houses are needed, while Havana fills with dangerous ruins);

  • the noted disparity between the cost of living and state salaries as well as a monetary system with two currencies (US dollar and Cuban peso) and thus two economies that don’t communicate with each other;

  • the need for Cubans to procure a permit to leave or return to the island.

For the past 20 years, since the collapse of the USSR, Cuba has been in a phase that in the early 1990s was dubbed ‘The Special Period in Times of Peace’ – a name that suggested a reality far less severe than the profound and general crisis that it designated. Though in recent times many of the elements of this crisis have been alleviated (the supply of medicines and urban transport in Havana, for example) or overcome (blackouts that could last as long as 16 hours a day), it is important to remember that an entire generation of Cubans have grown up battered by the conditions of this period. In addition to the shortage of material goods there was also moral decay, seen in phenomena like voluntary unemployment, the resurgence of prostitution, the proliferation of urban tribes of young people, the loss of various ethical values, corruption.

Cuba has to change. Not as a gesture intended for the other side of the Florida Straits but because of its own needs and shortcomings. Maybe now that the United States is finally viewing the world from a more realistic perspective, it will come to see that the elimination or scaling back of the embargo might be the most likely way to bring about these and other changes in its closest Caribbean neighbour.

Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and occasional contributor to New Internationalist. His novels have been translated into a dozen languages. His most recent work La neblina del ayer won the Hammett Prize for the best crime novel written in Spanish for 2005. © IPS

This column was published in the July 2009 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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