It has become commonplace to say that Latin America was absent from the 2012 election campaign in the United States. It is understandable, because the region was mentioned only once in the candidates’ foreign policy debate (by Governor Romney, when he referred to the potential of free trade agreements in the hemisphere), and it got almost no attention in campaign speeches. However, as with much conventional wisdom, the devil is in the definitions. If Latin America’s impact on U.S. politics is viewed in terms of relations between governments, the statement is correct; if, on the other hand, the concept includes the public, then the region was present like never before in the elections.
It is time to think about Latin American policy within a broader framework than old-fashioned nationalism. The political borders of transnational societies in the U.S. and the rest of the hemisphere have little to do with their legal boundaries. Latin America and the United States do not start or end with the Rio Grande or the Caribbean Sea. With their many, non-exclusive identities, Latin American and Caribbean Diasporas are increasingly important in the U.S. and in their home countries. The rigid cultural/linguistic/religious divide between indigenous/Hispanic/Catholic “Latin America” and “Anglo-Saxon/Protestant/white” United States needs to be revised.
Regardless of how long he lives, Fidel Castro has an influential role in shaping the political discourse in Cuba. Fidel skillfully mixed Marxism and nationalism and made a revolution that changed the history not only of Cuba but also of the whole Western hemisphere. He was the most popular leader in a generation of Cubans, a political giant who reached world dimensions during the Cold War. As professor Jorge Dominguez from Harvard University said, If there have been competitive elections in the early 1960’s, Castro could have won them all. He didn't have the chance. In the most difficult moments of the Cold War, the United States, as the hegemonic power in the Americas, didn't have tolerance for a nationalist leader who aspired to an independent neutralist course not to mention a socialist one, no matter how popular Castro was among his people.
One might expect that a terrible coincidence such as an American prisoner in Cuba and a paroled Cuban prisoner in the U.S. each desperately seeking permission to visit beloved relatives dying of cancer in their home countries might finally move both governments to do the right thing and send each man home. But so far, both governments have dug in their heels needlessly regarding the prisoners in their own custody, while at the same time, insisting that clemency should be shown towards their own citizens held in the other country.
So what happens now that a federal judge in Miami has approved Rene Gonzalez’s petition for a two week visit to his brother in Cuba? The judge gave her permission so long as Gonzalez obtains the necessary license from the U.S. government, provides his itinerary, keeps up with his parole officer while in Cuba, and returns when his two weeks are up. Lucky for Gonzalez that Mr. Obama delivered on his campaign promise to Cuban Americans back in 2009: anyone can visit close family in Cuba under ‘general license’ authority, so he doesn’t have to ask for further permission. This is good news for Gonzalez and his brother.
But will it mean good news for Alan Gross, in exchange? Unfortunately, it’s hard to argue this can be an ‘exchange’ of humanitarian gestures by the two governments, since Obama’s Justice Department opposed Gonzalez’s deathbed visit to his brother. These kinds of equities – or inequities – weigh heavily in Havana. When former governor Bill Richardson visited Cuba last August and suggested a swap of Gonzalez for Gross, Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon scoffed at the idea – Gonzalez was finishing his term, having served more than a dozen years in prison, whereas Gross had only just begun his sentence of 15 years. And, from the Cuban government’s perspective, Gonzalez was merely trying to protect Cuba, whereas Gross’s work to establish untraceable Wi-Fi networks on the island was funded under a statute calling for regime change in Cuba. (U.S. officials naturally have a different view: they cite national security concerns about Gonzalez, who was an unregistered agent of the Cuban government in the U.S., and they view Gross’s work as purely humanitarian in nature. )
Another reason why Cuba is less likely to grant Mr. Gross a deathbed visit to his mother is that granting a temporary release to Gross is tantamount to simply commuting his sentence. Why would he return to Cuba once reaching the U.S.? Gonzalez is likely return to the U.S. out of a sense of solidarity with the rest of the Cuban Five; if he fails to meet the conditions set out by the judge that granted his motion in the first place, that could impact decisions made on future motions filed by the rest of them. But Gross has nothing else at stake in Cuba, and if the Cuban government is bent on keeping him as a chip for the right humanitarian bargain to come along (say one that includes more of the Five), then granting his deathbed visit request would take away that imagined leverage.
But it’s a mistake to think that Mr. Gross offers any leverage to Cuba.
What’s the best way to gauge if anyone in Washington understands what’s going on in Havana? Try to grill Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
More than once, I’ve complained about the Obama administration’s tone-deafness on the shifting political, social and economic climate in Cuba. We (and by we, I mean they) were slow-to-absent in acknowledging and encouraging the 2010-2011 political prisoner releases brokered between Raul Castro, Cuba’s Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega and the previous (Zapatero) government in Spain, and President Obama himself has highlighted the ongoing economic changes in Cuba only to call them insufficient.
So it was fascinating to watch this exchange at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing this week in which Cuban-American Congressman David Rivera pressed Secretary Clinton for any “tangible” progress towards democracy in Cuba thanks to the Obama administration’s policy toward the island:
Despite the tensions associated with the upcoming 2012 election campaign in the US, a dialogue between Washington and Havana, as proposed by the Cuban Foreign Relations Minister Bruno Rodriguez, is also in the interest of the Obama Administration, which has nothing to gain from more conflicts in its relationship with Cuba. President Barack Obama's positions favoring dialogue without preconditions, increasing people to people contacts, and reaching mutually beneficial agreements on bilateral issues were never predicated on sympathy for Fidel or Raul Castro, but rather on the conviction that diplomacy and contacts between societies are the best ways to promote US national interests.
By that standard, the balance of the first three years of the Obama administration's relationship with Cuba is positive. The increase in cultural, family, humanitarian and religious travel to Cuba accelerates current reforms in Cuba, improves the image of the US in the hemisphere, and strengthens domestic political trends favoring an engagement policy that is less dependent on the Miami right and more consistent with democratic values and US strategic and economic interests.
Five years after Fidel Castro’s separation from power, it is essential to examine the role that the former revolutionary leader has played in the current Cuban political system from his convalescence and retirement, and the consequences of this evolution.
The fundamental role of Fidel Castro in the Cuban political system today is two-fold: 1) In terms of government, Fidel Castro is the great counselor, to be consulted on strategic decisions or with respect to the appointment or removal of central leaders, as was the case in the termination of the political careers of his former associates Felipe Perez and Carlos Lage and in the constitution of the new Central Committee at the Sixth Congress, 2) In terms of ideology and international projection, particularly in Latin America, he is a Patriarch of the radical left, advising the new leaders, especially Hugo Chavez, and reflecting on some of the past mistakes made by this political sector (in his Reflections and interviews he has criticized discrimination against homosexuals, hostility toward the market, and Ahmadinejad's anti-Semitism that has been repeated in many of the anti-Israeli condemnations by the radical Latin American left).
What would Ronald Reagan’s policy towards Cuba be today? Nobody can say for sure. It is certain that he would oppose and denounce communism, but would he support the travel ban and oppose educational, cultural and academic exchanges with Havana as Marco Rubio, Mario Diaz-Balart, David Rivera and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen do? In today’s post-Cold War environment, it is worthwhile to note that several members of Reagan’s team and many of the intellectuals who inspired his government such as Milton Friedman, Dick Cheney, and former Secretary of State George Schultz have supported a change in Washington’s policy.
Twenty eight years ago, in March of 1983, President Reagan gave a historic speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando and called the Soviet Union, the "evil empire". Reagan’s words about communism did not allow for nuances. It was “us against them”. Reagan’s clarity sent a meaningful message to average citizens of the democratic world and the many oppressed behind the iron curtain.
But Reagan’s speech to the Evangelicals in Florida should not be selectively cut from the whole of his general foreign policy approach to communism. Unfortunately, in the issue of foreign policy towards Cuba, supporters of the embargo use Reagan’s phrases to promote a “magical realism” version of what a moral policy towards communism should be.
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).
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.