This commentary was written for and first published in Australia's Green Left Weekly.
Obama’s new Cuba policy: McDonald's in Old Havana?
By Marce Cameron
“I want to see Cuba before everything changes,” is how many reacted to Barack Obama’s surprise December 17 announcement that he would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba — severed by the US in 1961 — and urge Congress to lift the US blockade.
Seeing Cuba for oneself can only be encouraged, but those who fear that it will soon be transformed by American tourists, US corporations and commercialism need not rush to book flights.
Hordes of American tourists and a hotel boom to accommodate them may well be inevitable, but a US corporate invasion is not. Fears or hopes that Obama’s new Cuba policy will unleash a US corporate take-over and cultural recolonisation are unfounded. These fears and hopes are based on the dubious assumption that what holds back the tide of capitalist restoration on the Cuban archipelago is, ironically, the US blockade.
Were this assumption to hold Caribbean water, we would have to credit the US blockade with Cuba’s tenacious independence and dogged commitment to socialism. That would be absurd: the blockade is a gross violation of Cuba’s right to self-determination.
It has succeeded in undermining, distorting and stunting Cuba’s socialist project. This is why Cuba’s socialist government has always demanded the lifting of the blockade.
In reality, what holds back the tide of capitalist restoration that presses in from outside (and wells up from within) is not the US blockade. It is the Cuban Revolution.
Obama knows this, which is why he pledged that lifting the blockade — which, he pointed out, has failed to bring US-style "democracy" to Cuba — will be accompanied by US efforts to subjugate Cuba by other, less confrontational means. One such means is coopting the emerging small business sector.
Whether Obama’s new approach to undermining the Cuban Revolution turns out to be more effective than the policy of siege and isolation remains to be seen. As Havana University’s Jesus Arboleya argues, it is far from inevitable that the owner of a pizza shop, a flower stand or a beauty salon will abandon their commitment to Cuban independence, social justice and solidarity for the siren song of US imperialism. They are natural allies of the working class and can make a positive contribution to Cuba’s socialist transitional economy.
What is clear is that restoring US-Cuba diplomatic relations and lifting the blockade will not, in and of itself, allow US corporations to dominate Cuba once again. Nor will it trigger a wave of privatisations of Cuba’s socialist state property, or an end to Cubans’ constitutional right to health care and education at all levels free of charge.
That would require the demolition or degeneration of two institutional pillars of the Revolution: the Cuban Communist Party and the socialist state it leads. This is precisely what the blockade has failed to achieve.
The failure of the blockade to destroy the Revolution — and Obama’s decision to act on the recognition of this failure — should be seen for what it is: a triumph of Cuba’s working people over half a century of brutal siege by the mightiest empire in history. Rather than recognise this inconvenient truth, Obama repeated the myth that the blockade has failed to bring about Iraq-style regime change because it has “provid[ed] the Cuban government with a rationale for restrictions on its people.”
The myth that the Revolution is propped up by the blockade is widespread among both liberal critics and admirers of socialist Cuba. In reality, the blockade has failed to bring about regime change for two fundamental reasons: millions of ordinary Cuban citizens remain deeply committed to the Revolution’s core principles; and the calibre of Cuba’s communist leadership. Obama wasn’t going to congratulate his adversaries.
Obama lied about the aims of the blockade: “Proudly, the United States has supported democracy and human rights in Cuba through these five decades … primarily through policies that aimed to isolate the island,” he claimed.
This is demonstrably false. The blockade’s real objectives have nothing to do with democracy and human rights. A declassified US State Department memo dated April 6, 1960 explains: “Every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba … to bring about hunger, desperation and the overthrow of [Cuba’s revolutionary] government.”
This has always been the blockade’s core objective, but admitting it would oblige the US — morally if not legally — to compensate Cuba for the US$117 billion in damages to the Cuban economy caused by the blockade in the 54 years to 2014, according to Cuban government estimates.
Elsewhere in his speech, Obama let slip the real objective of the blockade. It serves neither “America’s interests, or the Cuban people,” he said, “to try to push Cuba toward collapse … Even if that worked — and it hasn’t for 50 years — we know … that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos.”
In other words, the US will now seek to undermine Cuban sovereignty by other means.
Obama neither acknowledged nor apologised for acts of terrorism and sabotage for which the US state is directly or indirectly responsible, among them more than 600 plots to assassinate Fidel Castro and the blowing up of a Cuban civilian airliner in 1976 with the loss of 73 lives.
He described the Cuban Five anti-terrorism heroes, three of which were sent home to Cuba as part of a prisoner exchange agreed to with Cuban president Raul Castro, as “spies”.
Announcing that he had ordered a review of the State Department’s classification of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism — a status that obliges the US to impose financial sanctions — Obama stressed that the review “will be guided by the facts and the law.” This was a tacit admission that branding Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism is politicised and baseless.
Obama thanked the Pope for urging the US and Cuba to resolve their differences through dialogue, and the Canadian government for hosting secret high-level talks between the US and Cuban governments. These talks culminated in a phone conversation between Obama and Raul Castro, on December 16, in which the details of the prisoner swap were finalised.
The fact that the Cuban and US governments engaged in a discreet dialogue prior to Obama’s announcement does not mean that Raul Castro’s government is caving in to US pressure and negotiating the terms of the Revolution’s surrender.
In return for Obama’s pledge to restore diplomatic relations and urge Congress to end the blockade, Cuba has made no concessions whatsoever to long-standing US demands for ‘free’ elections and a ‘free-market’ economy.
Some conservative critics of Obama are incensed at the unilateral nature of the US policy shift. The US should use the blockade as a bargaining chip, they argue. Any steps towards the resumption of diplomatic relations and any easing of the blockade should be tied to Cuban concessions to US demands for changes to Cuba’s political system and property regime.
Unlike his conservative critics, Obama recognises that this approach hasn't worked for more than five decades. Cuba refuses to negotiate on matters of principle and has proved immune to bullying and blackmail. Given this, the only realistic approach is a unilateral one. (The prisoner swap was not a concession by either side, but a mutually beneficial exchange.)
On the same day that Obama announced his new Cuba policy, Raul Castro reiterated that Cuba has always been open to “respectful dialogue” with the US, but only on the basis of “sovereign equality” and complete respect for Cuban self-determination. He noted that as president, Fidel Castro had conveyed to the US on numerous occasions Cuba’s “willingness to discuss and resolve our differences without renouncing any of our principles.”
Cuba would continue to uphold these principles. Meanwhile, the US and Cuba “must learn the art of coexisting with our differences in a civilized manner”. In a speech to Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power on December 20, Raul Castro noted that Cuba has “strong convictions and many concerns regarding what happens in the US with respect to democracy and human rights” and would like to discuss these concerns with the US.
Castro stressed that Cuba would not, in order to improve relations with the US, “renounce the ideas for which it has struggled for more than a century, for which its people have shed much blood and run the greatest of risks. In the same way that we have never proposed that the United States change its political system, we will demand respect for ours.”
To thunderous applause, he continued: “It is necessary [for the US] to understand that Cuba is a sovereign state whose people, voting freely in a  referendum to approve the Constitution, decided on its socialist course and political, economic and social system.”
[Marce Cameron is president of the Australia-Cuba Friendship Society (Sydney) and blogs at Cuba's Socialist Renewal.]