Locked-in to Mutual Distrust
Dawn at the Melia Cohiba Hotel in Havana
During my visit to Cuba at the beginning of May, I was reminded of the mis-comprehension and suspicion that dominate both Havana and Washington.
Cubans were of mixed minds about the just completed VI Congress of the Communist Party. The published record had not yet been released, so my varied interlocutors were free to read as much or as little into press accounts of the results as fit their predispositions.
Regardless of whether positive or negative about what was accomplished in this round, everyone agreed Cuba is engaged in a substantial and irreversible evolution of its social and economic order.
Continuity of leadership was regarded as a holding pattern, symbolically disappointing but expected. Raul Castro solidified a reform minded administration but did not take any risk of unleashing internal rivalries by choosing as Second Secretary a prospective successor from a younger generation. The more revealing stage is next January's Party conference which will focus on political and personnel issues.
Cuba's revolutionaries know their domestic legacy is at risk. Failure to successfully renovate the socialist experiment opens Cuba not so much to a takeover by Miami counterrevolutionaries or Washington hegemonists as it does to a Russian style domestic oligarchy taking personal profit from five decades of collaborative struggle and sacrifice.
It is hard not to be impressed by the consultative process that took place leading to the Congress, albeit within controlled media parameters that impeded fully open debate. Former President Carter was told most of the lineamientos (policy guidelines) had been revised as the result of nationwide discussions. The published record of the Congress came in three columns, the original text of each point, the final version (more than 2/3 were amended), and an analysis of the difference. (Final report in Spanish here.)
There is no question that Cuba's adjustment will be painful. Large scale dismissals from the State sector cannot succeed without a broader than so far announced opening of opportunities in the private sector, including for commercial intermediaries and for persons with higher level technical and professional skills. For example legalization of travel agencies and a cooperative of independent tour guides would meet an obvious need. A Cuban friend observed, moreover, that without credit and a crash course in small business management, too many failures are likely, destroying life savings and hope. Apparently Cuba does not lack for offers of help from bilateral aid agencies and international NGOs, but the government has been slow to respond.
A long time foreign observer believes that the purpose of Alan Gross's arrest, conviction and continued detention was to send a signal to the US that fishing in troubled waters during the transition via USAID funded "democracy" programs is not an option.
A series of documentaries entitled "Cuba's Reasons" were broadcast in the run up to the Party Congress exposing US funded efforts to create domestic opposition. They can be seen here on the new Cuba Debate web site in English. The tone verges on institutional paranoia, and is reminiscent of what surfaces from the right wing and security agencies in the US (see account here). The goal may have been to undermine sectors in the leadership deemed to be too liberal and naïve about the US or simply to make average Cubans wary of the 'separation from the government' motive behind the anticipated upsurge in American visitors.
Regrettably, the words of President Obama himself to a Univision station in Miami capture the incompatible perspective in Washington.
MAM: Mr. President, in light of the recent reforms proposed by the Cuban government, do you really believe that changes are happening in Cuba?
POTUS: We haven't seen those changes in a realistic way yet. I mean we've heard some talk but the bottom line is political prisoners are still there who should have been released a long time ago who never should have been arrested in the first place; political dissent is still not tolerated. The economic system there is still far too constrained. And so my hope is that Cuba starts moving into the 21st century. If you think about it, Castro came into power before I was born - he's still there and he basically has the same system when the rest of the world has recognized that the system doesn't work. Obviously everything we do as an administration is going to be focused on how do we deliver more prosperity and more liberty for the Cuban people. And I would welcome real change from the Cuban government but we haven't seen them deliver on that change yet.
MAM: How do you justify opening relations with Cuba, when this week a dissident died after being beaten by police officers?
POTUS: Well as I said he shouldn't have been arrested in the first place obviously we need to hear more about this tragic situation, this specific situation but there have been thousands of people who have suffered as a consequence of oppressive actions by the Cuban regime, now what we've done to try to work with the Cuban people directly by changing the travel restrictions so that more family members can visit - making sure we are changing the remittance laws so that more Cubans have money in their pockets, those create spaces of freedom for the Cuban people but for us to have the kind of normal relations we have with other countries, we've got to see significant changes from the Cuban government and we just have not seen that yet.
The questions were ludicrously leading as well as factually incorrect (just what opening needs to be justified, purposeful travel?) but the President's answers were just as off-base. At first I took them to be pandering, an example of pre-2012 Florida electoral opportunism prompted by political advisers who don't understand how much the Cuban American community has changed. A more disturbing thought is that the President is so ill served by his national security staff that he simply doesn't know what is taking place in Cuba.
The Secretary of State offered a more nuanced view when she addressed the Council of the Americas annual conference
Now, we're putting a particular focus on people-to-people connections in Cuba. From the very beginning, the Obama Administration believed that the best way to advance fundamental rights in Cuba - in fact, to advance them anywhere - is to support exchanges and constructive relationships. And there's no better ambassador for our values than a teacher or an artist or a student or a religious leader, a Cuban American who has made a new life in the United States. That's why we have eased our restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba. We could do more if we saw evidence that there was an opportunity to do so coming from the Cuban side because we want to foster these deeper connections and we want to work for the time when Cuba will enjoy its own transition to democracy, when it can look at its neighbors throughout the hemisphere and the people in Cuba will feel that they, too, are having a chance to choose their leaders, choose their professions, create their businesses, and generally take advantage of what has been a tremendous, great sweep of progress everywhere but Cuba.
However, Secretary Clinton did not provide any sense of what evidence she is looking for and what more the US will do. I certainly found Cuban institutions readying themselves to receive however many Americans are allowed to come by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), as long as their visits are based on mutual respect.
OFAC denied "without prejudice" all license applications for people-to-people travel received before guidelines were finally published on April 19th. It continues to suggest that licenses are about to be issued, but the four month delay since the President's announcement of new regulations has already cost the ability to organize summer programs, and thus the opportunity to commence quickly with mutual awareness and trust-building encounters.
An encouraging sign of progress is the participation by two representatives of the University of Havana at the NAFSA annual convention . This professional gathering of 8,000 study abroad staff and foreign student advisors will take place in Vancouver May 31 - June 3, conference details here and Cuba program here
Fund for Reconciliation and Development
Links and resources
The most comprehensive resource on purposeful travel
Interview of the author by Tracey Eaton on USAID programs
Interview of the author by Nick Miroff on NPR about oil exploration
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