U.S.-Cuba: Rhetoric and Reality

By Fulton Armstrong

Obama speaks to Raul Castro / Official White House Photo by Pete Souza / Public Domain

Obama speaks to Raul Castro / Official White House Photo by Pete Souza / Public Domain

The decision by Presidents Obama and Castro to normalize relations is truly historic – for which they and their advisors deserve enthusiastic applause – even though both leaders’ rhetoric seems intended to suggest that they don’t know how deep the uncharted waters ahead run.  Their statements since last Wednesday sound solicitousness toward their right flanks.  President Obama launched his statement by proclaiming that the United States of America is changing its relationship with “the people of Cuba” and, while conceding that past strategies to “push Cuba toward collapse” have failed, cast his new policy as a better way of helping the Cuban people “enjoy lasting transformation.”  President Castro told the National Assembly this last weekend that he wasn’t jettisoning Cuba’s revolutionary project either.  Cuba is not going to give up, he said, “the ideas for which it has fought for more than a century and for which its people have spilled much blood and gone through the greatest risks.”

It’s true that the nature of the relationship is unlikely to change fast, and that neither President can ignore the legal strictures built up during 54 years of tensions.  Obama can’t lift the embargo and permit, for example, tourist travel without Congressional approval.  Cuba’s “Law 88 for the Protection of National Independence and the Economy of Cuba” remains on the books, and Castro’s not about to welcome the U.S. Government’s “democracy promotion” activities soon.  But normalization will significantly reduce both governments’ ability to restrain nongovernmental contacts and will unleash forces that will make the Presidents’ rhetoric look old-fashioned and unnecessary.  Both countries have to learn how to talk to each other, and time-tested people-to-people contacts show that citizens with shared interests are better than governments at learning the language of cooperation and problem-resolution – without ideological agendas.  It stands to reason that pressure will grow on Obama and Castro to pursue concrete interests, especially trade, and to manage their dreams, respectively, of “lasting transformation” and “updated communism.”

No model for this new bilateral dance is perfect.  China and Vietnam show that trade-driven economic change – even with U.S. most-favored-nation status – doesn’t necessarily drive a country to democracy.  An educated and healthy people with strategic needs, the Cubans are prepared to work hard to build their country, but they’re not going to work in factories with anti-suicide nets under the dormitory windows.  That sort of political awareness argues for change, but the Cuban revolution implanted in the Cuban psyche a certain set of values and expectations – ranging from social programs to an almost obsessive sense of dignity – that won’t always coincide with U.S. values.  The Cubans will want to go a la carte with us on political matters, and they, like every country of Asia and Latin America emerging from difficult times, will almost certainly expect us to give them the space to do change their own way.  The United States worked with Mexico under one-party rule for 70 years last century.  If Washington and Havana approach the challenge of building a healthy relationship with respect and open minds, they should able to find a middle ground and grow together a lot faster than that.

December 22, 2014

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