Between thaw and democratization
After the first steps towards normalizing the relationship
between the United States and Cuba on and off the island,
it’s up to democrats to imagine and build an alternative future
with social justice, political pluralism and economic prosperity
for the Cuban people.
In his December 17 Statement on Cuba policy changes, US President Barack Obama said, “Cubans have a saying about daily life: ‘No es facil’—It’s not easy. Today, the United States wants to be a partner in making the lives of ordinary Cubans a little bit easier, more free, more prosperous.”
The news of a slow normalization in the relations between the United States and Cuba has unleashed considerable controversy. Washington laid out a road map with specific actions, while Cuba’s President Raúl Castro limited himself to a few rather general considerations about the process. Since then, a debate has taken off in the press and social media whose main themes are the validity, legitimacy and future of the US isolationist policy towards Cuba, its link to the pending Cuban democratization process and the viability and consequences of the dialogue and openings for bilateral relations and for Havana’s political regime.
The Miami exiles’ argumentsRadical sectors of the Miami exiles and Republican politicians have accused Obama of betraying the Cuban people and the US commitment in its worldwide defense of democracy. This is somewhat debatable, since in his speech he emphasized not only continued backing for the island’s democratization, but also that US diplomacy isn’t based on an unshakeable policy of isolation for every regime that violates human rights. If it were, the United States wouldn’t have embassies in or trade with Saudi Arabia and Vietnam or with many other governments not considered fans of popular sovereignty and political pluralism. Other variables of bilateral geopolitics such as limited commercial interests and the moderate military risk, or domestic policy variables such as the weight of the Cuban-American lobby within the US establishment, have obvious served to maintain hostility against Havana up till now.
Another argument of the enemies of normalization consists of pointing out that the Cuban government is desperately seeking loans and investment given the current Venezuelan crisis, making it more inclined to open up politically. This is why they saw Obama’s statements as equivalent to a sort of Christmas life saver for the drowning man of the Caribbean.
In this, they are ignoring recent history. The experience of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 showed that a government such as Cuba’s, with full control over the country’s material and mobilizing resources, can still operate despite extremely restricted financial resources and diplomatic isolation. In addition, as Carmelo Mesa Lago has explained, the greater—although still insufficient—diversification of the country’s electricity grid, trade and investments reduces the potential impact of the end of the Venezuelan oil subsidy.
Havana’s diplomatic relations are at their highest point of the entire revolutionary period. To sum up: Cuba is in better shape to face an albeit unlikely crisis of the magnitude of its 1989-1993 one, whereas the United States is increasingly isolated on the international stage—remember the UN’s repeated condemnation of the blockade—and in the inter-American institutions.
Given the nature of its post-totalitarian domination scheme, the Cuban government needs little more to sustain itself than a simple reproduction that guarantees it the resources to repress the opposition, the earnings of the political-military elite and their lesser allies (managers, artists, nouveau riche, armed forces officials)—for now channeled into consumption on borders—and a very basic basket of goods for a population exhausted by the struggle for daily survival.
It’s true, however, that if Cuba is to move beyond simple reproduction to the expanded reproduction that allows repression to be replaced by hegemonic control, the elites to possess capital and markets for investment outside the country and the regime’s grassroots bases to possibly grow, it must relax or even normalize relations with its most powerful neighbor. For this, the interests of dissimilar actors—future Cuban leaders, the new emerging middle class, Cuban dissidents, etc.—may randomly coincide with the conditions created by normalization.
The pressure cooker hypothesisThe pressure cooker hypothesis—that increasing sanctions will cause an uprising against the government—should be morally indefensible by those of us who don’t share the fate and daily living conditions of our compatriots on the island. Cuban citizens are the ones paying both the real and symbolic costs of such a failed policy. It’s being paid by the majority, whose daily lives, already precarious due to the mediocre functioning of the statist model, are affected even further by the embargo/blockade-caused austerity, and it’s being paid by the harassed dissidents who see their work distorted by government propaganda that calls them “mercenaries of a foreign power.”
Fanning the internal weariness as a political stratagem is also of doubtful effectiveness, given the lack of evidence that maintaining or reinforcing sanctions would divide the upper echelons, weaken its political control or embolden the population, bringing it out on to the streets. The fact is that the poorer people are, the more they depend on the State. Today this State both employs and polices the entire citizenry. Tomorrow, if bigger spaces of personal and collective autonomy open up, it may only be a police force. With this strategy’s ineffectiveness for the past five decades now proven, the moment to try something different would appear to have arrived.
Will there be moves But even defending Obama’s initiative as practically and ethically right is no reason to swallow the line that normalization will automatically enable decisive medium-term moves towards democracy. The Cuban government is clearly not motivated to commit to any political opening as a counterpart to the lifting of sanctions. It didn’t happen in China or Vietnam, two regimes whose political system, social control mechanisms and State ideology are twins to Cuba’s.
In fact, in its foreign affairs strategy, Cuba’s upper echelons have maintained two positions regarding the blockade-democratization relationship: the main position, espoused time and again by its best-known leaders, is that it’s possible to dialog with the United States without making principled concessions, read political changes.
The second position, sometimes expressed by lower-ranking officers in foreign forums and to individuals sympathetic to the “Revolution,” has flirted with this equation: the less harassment from the United States, the greater possibility of openness, but never assuming clear and explicit commitments as to the forms and steps that would concretize this opening up.
In the short term, then, the Cuban elite can be expected to continue substituting the rule of law with their arbitrary exercise of state rule. The detentions and repressive actions with which the Cuban government ended 2014 and welcomed in the New Year point in that direction.
It could be a lost opportunity Assessed with a healthy combination of willing optimism and intellectual pessimism, the complex paths arising from the US-Cuba rapprochement suggest some interesting scenarios despite everything. The uncertain and dynamic route to normalization presents opportunities for pluralizing civil society, greater autonomy of the economic subjects and the rise of new, more technocratic civilian elites and less ideological military ones in charge of the country.
This would be in keeping with the resistance and creativity shown by the internal opposition in adapting to the new conditions, as well as with the way unilateral US harassment might be transformed into an inter-American policy
of peaceful promotion of democracy and human rights, to which end Latin American governments must be less complacent with Havana’s insults and repression. In the same direction, greater links between existing organizations and activists on the island with the recognized international
civil society entities (Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, among
others) would also be desirable, so the transnational civil initiative more than any foreign government agenda might be what marks the move into democracy.
If the synergies between the normalization processes involving the United States and Cuba and democratization, (abandonment of the one-party system, decriminalization of dissent and openness for the media and civil society on the island) don’t produce specific actions such as recognition of
the existence and work of human rights organizations, the visit of the United Nations rapporteurs and ratification of the agreements signed by Havana on this issue in 2009, the process starting now will mean another lost opportunity for the cause of a Cuba fully reconciled with regional standards.
Time to imagine Politics, like the god Janus, has two faces: both the elite’s actions and the grassroots mobilization can help democratize a country or can endorse authoritarian regression and immobility. To date, the Cuban government, with nothing new to offer regarding broken “revolutionary” promises, has given no sign of securing democratization. The opposition, though deserving in its resistance and slow growth, has revealed itself to be incapable of preventing authoritarianism.
If the announced normalization doesn’t go hand-in-hand with processes of citizen empowerment and democratic change, the triumphant march of authoritarian capitalism will follow, mixing communist rhetoric with voracious exploitation of the workers while its elites—and global associates—profit, repress and perpetuate themselves with the hemisphere’s consent. Like China, Cuba in the medium term would have its collegiate authoritarianism, its red bourgeoisie, its internet with firewalls and its market without a republic. Today, in an obscure corner of Havana, the foundations are being built for such realities.
It’s up to democrats on and off the island to imagine and build an alternative future with formulas of social justice, political pluralism and economic prosperity for the Cuban people.
Armando Chaguaceda is a political scientist, historian and social activist. This text was published in Spain’s February 2015 edition of Letras Libres, Number 16.