Impasse in U.S.-Cuba Relations Enters 54th Year

Three American University professors recently traveled to Cuba for research and discussions on Cuba’s reform process – called “Updating Socialism” – and the island’s relations with the United States.  Today’s entry looks at the bilateral relationship.

Flags in front of U.S. Interests in Malecón.  By: Luiza Leite "Luiza" | Flickr | Creative Commons

Flags in front of U.S. Interests in Malecón. By: Luiza Leite “Luiza” | Flickr | Creative Commons

U.S. and Cuban experts at a conference in Havana in December observed that, despite important areas of mutual interest, the Obama Administration has so far shown little inclination to accept a dialogue.  Some experts opined that the imprisonment of USAID contractor Alan Gross has become a convenient excuse for Obama to avoid any serious engagement.

Other key points:

  • There is no effective political channel for resolving bilateral problems – indeed, no contacts at all at political levels.  The Interests Sections in each other’s capitals handle routine matters, but Washington has rejected Cuban requests to continue semi-annual migration talks.  Cuba gave the United States a proposal for resolving the Gross situation, which the State Department has not even acknowledged receiving.
  • In addition to reiterating longstanding frustration that U.S. policy is stuck in the regime-change mode forged by President George W. Bush, Cuban experts lamented that many Americans latch onto every challenge Cuba faces – such as whether the passing of Venezuelan President Chávez will lead to reductions in oil supplies – as evidence that the Cuban government will “collapse” and therefore that dialogue with it would be foolish.
  • Cuban rhetoric espousing the swap of the “Cuban Five” for USAID contractor Alan Gross has fueled powerful political expectations in Cuba, but Havana’s bottom line on the elements of a humanitarian release is far from clear.  Experts from both countries are perplexed that Washington will not have a dialogue at any level to discuss whether a deal is possible.
  • Many Cuban and American experts believe that one incentive for the United States to improve relations is to rebuild its image in Latin America.  But they note – ruefully – that Latin American does not seem to be a priority for the Obama Administration anyway.

The Gross situation is merely the most recent of a long string of issues blamed for the dysfunctional relationship.  The real causes of the impasse at this point are whether Washington can shift away from policies and well-funded programs fashioned to achieve regime change in Cuba, and whether the two governments can manage the influence that both have given ultra-conservatives unprepared to broach compromise – be it Cubans opposed to releasing Alan Gross while four of the “Cuban Five” remain in U.S. jail, or Cuban-Americans benefiting from the sort of regime-change operations that Gross was conducting.  The lack of a reliable channel for political leaders above both bureaucracies to talk creates the risk of manageable problems spinning out of control, to the detriment of both countries’ interests.

Cuba: Change in the Wind

Three American University professors recently traveled to Cuba for research and discussions on Cuba’s reform process – called “Updating Socialism” – and the island’s relations with the United States.  Today’s entry looks at the economic changes.

Photo by: Globovisión | Flickr | Creative Commons

Photo by: Globovisión | Flickr | Creative Commons

In offices, shops and on the street in Havana, “change” seems to be one of the most commonly used words.  Billboards proclaim “The changes in Cuba are for more socialism” and “Updating socialism is the answer.”  But the words “reform” and – in some conversations – “privatization” pop up with significant frequency.  Party members previously reluctant to talk about change now speak of introducing “elements of capitalism” to make Cuba a “mixed economy” patterned closely after the “Vietnam model,” with its economic loosening but one-party rule.  Previous reforms have brought better, if sometimes expensive, food to many Cuban dinner tables, but the strong consensus in and outside the party is that a lot more needs to be done.

  • The law-decree on “non-agricultural cooperatives” provides a politically correct way ahead for the formation of small and medium private enterprises.  Cuentapropistas were given a prominent place in the May Day parade, and some are being nominated for office on the Communist Party slate.
  • The government is making another run at tearing down the barriers between hard-currency and peso purchases, with an eye to unifying the currency in the future.  Price tags at at least one major Havana store list prices in both convertible and national currency, at a 23-to-one conversion rate.
  • The law already allows Cubans to hire workers – a right previously given only to the state – and a draft labor law will further legalize private workers’ activities and integrate them into the economy.
  • Some 200-plus state enterprises are being put on a sink-or-swim program in which new management selected by the workers will be given a year to transform the firms into businesses closely resembling private cooperatives.
  • In January, the National Assembly will take up amendments to foreign investment laws.  Under consideration are direct foreign sales to non-state cooperatives and the direct hiring, firing, and paying of Cuban workers by foreign companies.
  • The travel reform law that goes into effect on January 14, ending the necessity for an exit visa and removing restraints on most Cubans from obtaining a passport, will also stimulate interaction with foreign countries.

The macro situation is still a mess, and the reforms have a long way to go to attain even the level of Vietnam’s prosperity.  Cuban stores sell Vietnamese cookies, not vice versa.  As the rhetoric indicates, the government – long expert at managing popular expectations – continues to emphasize continuity as the changes proceed.  But while no one is expecting a fast shift to capitalism, many middle-aged and elderly Cubans have a renewed sense of hope that life ahead will be better, which has political benefits and risks for the government.  One thing for sure is that the socialism that is being “updated” is a far cry from the communism that Cuba attempted in the 60s, 70s and 80s.