Obama's Univision Interview: Who Said 'Normal' Was on the Table?

Photo courtesy of the White House's photostream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wh

After a nearly three month-long leave, I've got lots of Cuba news catching up to do.  Much has happened.  And much has stayed the same.

In Cuba, following the Sixth Party Congress in April, we're beginning to see some changes, rolled out one-by-one, with little fanfare (as Phil Peters pointed out was how countless needed reforms would come about).  For instance, the government is offering private entrepreneurs several tax breaks designed to help spur their growth - offering a payroll tax holiday for 2011 for businesses with fewer than five employees, and finally allowing private restaurants (known as paladars) to serve up to fifty customers at a time - up from 20, which was up from 12.  It's easy to see these and other recent reforms as overdue, and as playing too much at the margins. 

But, however slowly it moves ahead, this is a government that has committed itself to a long range reform process.  It's all here - in the very public, fully discussed and debated, 313 lineamentos or guidelines for reforms.  Oh, and let's not forget Raul Castro's embrace of term limits, which, if he honors it, will have tremendous implications for Cuban political leadership and reform in the next several years.

But it's this distinction, between the journey and the end, that President Obama failed to acknowledge in his recent interview with Univision's Jose Diaz-Balart (yes, brother to Lincoln and Mario, and nephew of Fidel Castro's first wife, Mirta).

" . . . I would welcome real change from the Cuban government but we haven’t seen them deliver on that change yet . . . 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.”

Everyone knows Cuba's system has been either frozen or in decay for no less than two decades now.  For years, Fidel Castro seemed either unaware, unconcerned or unwilling to make the compromises needed to head off a deepening crisis.  It's that crisis, the crisis of the failed system Raul Castro inherited 5 years ago, exacerbated by a worldwide economic downturn, that Raul Castro's government is attempting to respond.  The changes in Cuba certainly aren't the overnight type, but many experts agree we might not like what we see from too quick a change. 

However slowly the process is moving, there is real change afoot in Cuba.  No one knows yet how far it will go nor how successful it will be.  Of course, there's no denying there are still major, important problems for the Cuban government to resolve, not just on the economic side, including how it handles peaceful dissent (see Lilia Lopez's June 6th post for more on that).  But something crucial is happening on the island right now.  Given the U.S.'s seemingly disinterested response so far, it's not clear to me exactly how President Obama would welcome "real" change from Cuba - nor, obviously, how he might recognize it (or admit to recognizing it).   

“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."

Fair enough.  Some folks prefer to peel a bandaid off ever so slowly, rather than just rip it off.  So maybe we don't negotiate a free trade agreement with Cuba, or offer it preferential tariffs to spur growth on the island.  Not yet.  

And maybe we hold off on offering Permanent Normal Trade Relations, or even time-limited Normal Trade Relations (which, last I checked, only Cuba and North Korea don't yet enjoy). 

And we could even continue to withhold any foreign assistance, keep refusing Cuban imports, and keep refusing to sell them anything but food (on a cash routed through a third country bank or on foreign credit basis) or medicine (with enough restrictions to essentially block that trade too). 

And for the ever-so-squeamish, we could continue holding off on opening real embassies and re-establishing full diplomatic relations that we have with numerous unsavory regimes around the world. 

But then there's also that matter of the terrorism list.  And the travel ban.  

With so much baggage in the way, it's hard to see how anyone could be worried about a precipitious normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba.  As we head into the 2012 presidential election season, I doubt any of the embargo's staunchest supporters in South Florida are.