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".