Monday, March 2, 2015

Obama's Cuba calculus

An edited version of this commentary has been published under the heading 'Obama's plans for Cuba' in this week's edition of Australia's Green Left Weekly. This is the second commentary in a series on Obama's December 17 announcement on US-Cuba relations and its implications. The first is here.

Obama's Cuba calculus  

By Marce Cameron

A second round of talks between US and Cuban diplomats was held in Washington last week with the aim of restoring diplomatic relations. In what he termed the most significant Cuba policy shift in more than fifty years, Barack Obama has announced that he will pursue diplomatic relations and urge Congress to dismantle the US blockade of Cuba.

Rather than siege and isolation, the US will now pursue a policy of "freedom and openness", based on Obama's belief in the transformative power of "people-to-people engagement." In other words, US citizens would be free to travel to Cuba and US corporations would be free to trade with and invest in Cuba. "We are taking steps to increase travel, commerce, and the flow of information to and from Cuba", Obama said in his December 17 announcement.

Obama's concept of freedom does not embrace the sovereign right of the Cuban nation to pursue its socialist commitment free from US interference. Quite the opposite: Obama hopes that an influx of American tourists and, eventually, US corporations will gradually erode that commitment from within. Rather than implode, the Cuban Revolution would fade away.

US isolation

Ironically, the prevailing US policy of siege and isolation—which dates back to the early 1960s—has failed because the US has merely succeeded in isolating itself. As Obama noted, "no other nation joins us in imposing these sanctions". Cuba's allies, especially Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution, have thrown Cuba's besieged post-capitalist economy a lifeline.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, Cuba lost some 85% of its foreign trade almost overnight. The Cuban economy contracted 35%, the US ratcheted up the blockade and some predicted the imminent collapse of Cuba's government. Today, the diversification of Cuba's trading partners softens the impact of the blockade and renders it increasingly ineffective.

US allies such as Canada and the European Union resent the fact that their own citizens can be prosecuted in US courts for doing business with Cuba. On the other hand, Cuba is one of the very few countries where foreign investors face no competition from US corporations—thanks to the blockade. US corporations "should not be put at a disadvantage", Obama said.

On the diplomatic front, the isolation of the US is glaring. When the US severed diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1962, then used its influence to coerce other countries to do likewise, every state in the Western hemisphere—except for Mexico and Canada—followed the US lead.

From Chile to Honduras, the US has helped overthrow elected governments and has propped up client dictatorships in the region. Cuba has been excluded from the US-led Organisation of American States (OAS) on the basis of its supposed lack of democracy and human rights.

Today, the US cannot even exclude Cuba from its own hemispheric forum. After Ecuador threatened to boycott OAS summits unless Cuba is invited, Obama bowed to Latin American pressure. Cuba's President Raul Castro will now attend the OAS summit in April.

Obama tried to salvage something from this diplomatic humiliation by insisting that Cuba's ''dissidents" (i.e. US-financed opposition grouplets) be represented at the OAS summit. At  the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit in Costa Rica in January, Raul Castro countered: why not then invite representatives of the hemisphere's indigenous peoples, peasants, workers, women, students and the other popular sectors?

CELAC is an initiative of Venezuela and Cuba. All Latin American and Caribbean nations are members, while the US and Canada—the imperialist superpower and its regional sidekick—are excluded. CELAC, which overshadows the OAS, could well condemn it to irrelevance.

US-Cuba talks: the Cuban delegation
Obama's Cuba policy shift is partly, then, a response to waning US hegemony in its own regional 'backyard'. Opening a US embassy in Havana has taken on an air of urgency, with US officials keen to demonstrate to the OAS summit in April that Obama is serious about a new era in US-Cuba relations. This urgency stacks the negotiating cards in Cuba's favour.

Elite divisions

There is a consensus among the US capitalist elite and its political representatives that the Cuban Revolution must be undermined and defeated. Addressing opponents of his new Cuba policy, Obama said that he shares their "commitment to liberty and democracy [i.e. to capitalist restoration in Cuba]. The question is how we uphold that commitment."

The failure of the US blockade to achieve its core objective—a concatenation of misery, demoralisation, social unrest and political upheaval leading to the installation of a US client regime—is evident to the realists within the US ruling class, Obama among them. As Obama put it, one cannot do "the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result."

Supporters of the blockade counter that dismantling it would only play into the hands of "the Castro regime". Cuba will hail the US rapprochement as a propaganda victory, they point out. Revenues from US tourism, trade and investment would fill the coffers of Cuba's communist state. Obama wants to unilaterally relinquish his biggest bargaining chip: the blockade.

When it comes to imperial strategy, deep divisions remain. Yet the tide is clearly turning against the blockade, and its demise—however incremental—now seems only a matter of time. Obama's December 17 speech marks, in all probability, the beginning of its end.

Behind these strategic divisions lurk powerful material interests. The anti-Castro lobby, led by a coterie of Cuban-American millionaires and billionaires, still wields a considerable yet waning influence in Washington's corridors of power. Old dreams—of returning to Cuba to take possession of mansions, factories and farms—die hard.  

On the other hand, powerful sectors of US capital want Congress to scrap the blockade, so they can get on down to Cuba and make big bucks. The US oil industry wants a piece of the action in Cuba's deep-water oilfields in the Gulf of Mexico; from Vermont apple growers to Mississippi rice farmers, US agribusiness wants to sell more food to Cuba.

US airline and tourism companies drool over Cuba's pristine beaches, colonial facades and cultural effervescence. Southern US port operators and shipping firms are preparing for a post-blockade scenario in which Cuba is the vibrant hub of Caribbean trade and tourism.

Cuba's vast new port facilities at Mariel, some 40km west of Havana, point to that possible future. For the time being at least, the sectors of US capital that stand to gain most from a dismantling of the blockade can only watch as their competitors submit investment proposals for the Mariel Special Development Zone that surrounds the new port.

Changes in Cuba

While Cuba has yet to fully emerge from the post-Soviet 'Special Period', crisis management has given way to establishing the bases—political, economic and ideological—for what Raul Castro terms a prosperous and sustainable socialism. Realists among the US elite no longer believe that another few years of blockade-induced privations and suffering might precipitate social unrest and a political crisis in Cuba. Cuba's working people endured far worse, in the early 1990s, without rising up against their own government.  

Instead of seeking to undermine Cuba socialism by blockading it, the pro-'engagment' wing of the US elite seek to take advantage of, and influence, the changes to Cuba's socialist model under Raul Castro's presidency. These changes—such as the promotion of self-employment, small businesses and cooperative management of state property—do not respond to US demands that Cuba adopt a 'free-maket' economy and 'free' elections.

Rather, they respond to the need to revitalise Cuba's socialist project if it is to endure long after Fidel Castro's generation has departed the scene. As veteran Cuban journalist Luis Sexto has aptly observed: "Cuba, rigid for many years, shakes off the starch that immobilised it to change what is obsolete ... without compromising the solidity of the Revolution's power".
While not in response to US demands for change, some of these changes do coincide, if only partially, with US demands. For example, Obama said in his December 17  speech that under his new Cuba policy, the US would seek to support "the emerging Cuban private sector" and noted, approvingly, that "Cuba has made reforms to gradually open up its economy".

Monday, February 2, 2015

Obama’s new Cuba policy: McDonald's in Old Havana?

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’s stance

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.

No concessions

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 [1976] 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.]

Friday, January 23, 2015

Finally, my Masters thesis on Cuba

You can read my thesis by clicking here
Dear readers of Cuba's Socialist Renewal,

After a two-and-a-half year hiatus, I'm pleased to announce that I'll resume posting original translations and commentaries in 2015, beginning with this post.

As explained in my last post in August 2012, I began work on a Masters thesis on Cuba's socialist transition, under the auspices of Sydney University's Department of Political Economy—a thesis that would build on the translations and analyses that I've shared with you via this blog. At the outset, I had no intention of setting aside the blog to write the thesis, but the need to focus intensely on the thesis conspired against my best intentions.

Other life commitments also had to take precedence for a while, and what I had misunderstood to be a one-year time frame for research, writing and coursework was actually a two-year submission deadline. Naturally, I made the most of that extra year to delve deeper, refine the argument and polish the exposition. I was rewarded for this effort with a most unexpected (yet most gratifying) High Distinction grade.

I began the thesis under the supervision of Dr Tim Anderson and completed it under the supervision of Dr Damien Cahill, both from the Political Economy department at Sydney University. I am indebted to them for their encouragement, guidance and patience. The whole process was a steep learning curve for me: I joked with my supervisors that I had to undergo my own 'socialist transition' to academic writing, which differs from blog commentaries in structure, style and rigour.

As you can see from a glance at the references list, I made extensive use of original translations posted to this blog as source material. Those of you inclined to read the thesis itself will find that key themes and threads of argument elaborated here are woven into the thesis. In other words, the thesis is a continuation of the work shared with you here since December 2010. As noted in the thesis Introduction, my thesis is a work of conceptual synthesis, historical analysis and reinterpretation.

While it stands alone as an academic thesis, it was not written in pursuit of an academic career. Rather, its primary purpose is to serve as a contribution to the wider debate—above all among partisans, solidarity activists and sympathisers of the Cuban Revolution—on the past, present and future of Cuba's socialist project. While I had to make certain unavoidable concessions to academic style, it is written with this wider audience in mind—avoiding, I hope, any lapses into unexplained Marxist jargon or into arcane or incomprehensible 'academese'.

I would love to translate this thesis into Spanish, but a golden rule of translation is 'never translate your own work'. Besides, I can translate from Spanish to English reasonably competently, but the other way only crudely. Only a native Spanish speaker with a keen grasp of the Cuban context and of Marxism could do it justice.

That's enough about my thesis, except to say that it's freely accessible here by anyone anywhere; and that I welcome any feedback and constructive criticism you may have via email or, if you like, as comments posted below this post. Please feel free to forward the above link (or the associated PDF file) to anyone who may be interested.

Over the coming months I will resume translations and commentaries on Cuba's socialist renewal, as I see it, and the context in which this renovation process is now unfolding: the beginning of the end of the US blockade signalled by Obama's December 17 statement on US-Cuba relations. In other words, the Cuban Revolution's triumph over half a century of siege and isolation, and the pursuit of US imperialism's historic objectives by other, less confrontational means.

Before concluding this post, I should also mention that I had the honour of being elected president of the Sydney branch of the Australia-Cuba Friendship Society in June. As part of the global Cuba solidarity movement, the Society welcomes the return of all of the Cuban Five to Cuban shores after their long, unjust incarceration in US prisons.

Their stoic and dignified resistance symbolises Cuba's epic struggle.

Happy New Year to you all.

Marce Cameron
Sydney, Australia