Obama in Cuba
by Eric Jackson
It was all carefully choreographed symbolism, and some of it very real. However, one has to look at several long-developing contexts to make full sense of the Obama visit to Cuba.
Most of all, the context of US relations with the rest of the Western Hemisphere set the stage. Over decades, starting with countries like Mexico that never went along with the US policy of isolating Cuba and by the 70s including places like Argentina and Panama that refused to restrict their trade with Cuba according to US orders, the political opposition to US Cuba policy solidified in the Caribbean countries and by the end of the 20th century gained an overwhelming majority in Latin America. As so much of the region went left with the “Pink Tide” that washed over the region in the first decade of the 21st century, the US habit of giving right-wing Cuban exiles in South Florida a veto power over US policies toward all of Latin America was taken as a special annoyance even by countries that had not suffered the Cuban American National Foundation’s wrath. US policy was an anachronism and it was left up to Panama’s moderately conservative President Juan Carlos Varela to inform the Obama administration that Cuba was invited to the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama City and the United States could deal with that fact as it pleased.
A bad economy — a sluggish recovery from a stagnant status quo for all but the richest Americans, China in a steep downturn and Latin American countries devastated by low prices of the commodities that they sell — shaped Cuba’s motives. Whether or not the left can hang on in Venezuela, the oil wealth is gone and will probably never come back. There is a chance of an ultra-right government in Caracas that delights in baiting leftist Cuba, but that would be ephemeral. Venezuela had strong economic and cultural ties with the Caribbean, particularly its Spanish-speaking lands, well before the rise of Hugo Chávez and those will continue. But the high volume of trade on favorable terms and the aid are features of the Cuban-Venezuelan relationship that are over and won’t be back anytime soon. The alternative ALBA economic bloc never did prosper and was taken as a mortal threat by Washington, as if US trade hegemony is likely to be restored through political domination anytime soon. The days of Latin America consuming mostly US-made products are over, but on the other hand — much to the chagrin of many Americans on both the left and the right — there is a multinational integration of the world’s oligarchs, with London bankers, Saudi oil sheikhs, Latin American death squad politicians, German manufacturers, Asian absentee sweatshop lords, sports mafia thugs and the corporate-backed US political glitterati rubbing elbows at many a private gathering. The Chinese have been the partners and competitors who were never entirely part of the club. China’s economic power has displaced that of the United States across most of Latin America and the Caribbean. Cuba was one of the early Chinese beachheads in the region. But now the Chinese economy is in a bad way and aid from or trade with China is not going to fill the hole that the Venezuelan oil collapse has left in Cuba. Yes, Cuba survived the “Special Period” following the Soviet Union’s fall but Cubans would rather not go through that again. Adding some US business tie cards to its weak economic hand became a political imperative for Cuba.
And what of the Cuban Counter-Revolution? There are two parts to that. Those Miami exiles — as well as a substantial Cuban community in Puerto Rico and smaller ones throughout Latin America — who dreamed of returning to the island and restoring their power and glory days of the 50s? The Castro brothers outlived them. The younger generations of Cuban-Americans aren’t like that. Maybe US elections are the best indicator. The Florida “Hispanic vote” is not nearly so Cuban as it once was. Now there are a lot of Puerto Ricans and Mexican-Americans in the state, and people from all over Latin America in Miami. Among the Cuban-Americans there is a generation gap. The young Great Cuban-American Hope, Marco Rubio? He got stomped in the Florida primary and after he leaves the US Senate at the end of this year we probably won’t hear much from him again. Ted Cruz? As far as most Cuban-Americans are concerned he’s a foreigner, a weird religious fanatic from another place. The one US presidential candidate who offers any hope at all to the remnants of the Miami Cuban exile leadership, Hillary Clinton, would face a resurgent left within her own party if she makes it to the White House and that would stand in the way of restoring the influence that the old exile leaders used to have. Barack Obama went to Cuba because he could, because the old opponents to such a move are gone or too feeble to resist.
When Obama visited Cuba he met with a few carefully designated and not particularly powerful Cuban dissidents. The rowdier, more capable and more dangerous to the Castro brothers dissidents were rounded up and sent out of town to avoid any demonstrations for the TV cameras. The world media got to interview men and women on the street who were wary of the minders present. But time dictates a generational change in Cuba. Even if there are some quite capable replacements waiting in the Communist Party wings it’s hard to see how there can be a generational change without a procedural makeover and a reaching out beyond the party’s narrowed base. The communists have the Soviet, Eastern European, Chinese, Vietnamese and North Korean examples to instruct them, mostly about what not to do. But it’s Cuba, which among other things has always had cultural component in Florida, from even before there were English-speaking people in North America. The Castros gave Cuba the only period of stability that the island ever had as an independent republic and that legacy will serve future leaders well if they have to stave off the long-existing but generally minor current in Cuban thinking that favors some sort of annexation by the United State. But a measure of change, a bit of economic prosperity and more options in personal lives are likely to be the prices demanded and paid for any post-Castro political mandate in Cuba. The Communist Party may have to go into opposition. The Cuban Revolution is a fact that won’t be changed, but for most Cubans on and off the island it’s also history that is somewhat beside the point of where to go next.
The banter between Obama and Castro about human rights? Both governments have dirty laundry. From a press freedom point of view, Cuba has freed almost all of its jailed journalists and bloggers while the United States has seen a crackdown, such that there are more imprisoned journalists in the USA than in Cuba these days. The government-restricted Cuban press gets better all the time, as the corporate-dominated US press sinks to ever new lows. Cuban police round up peaceful dissidents. American cops use stinging chemical sprays on such protesters. Violate Cuban airspace on an anti-government mission and Castro’s people may well shoot you down. Show insufficient obeisance to the cops on a US street and you may well be shot dead, particularly if black. Cuban prisons are not fun places. Neither are US prisons, and the United States incarcerates a much larger percentage of its population than does Cuba. Obama and Castro complained about the human rights records of each others’ countries and they were both right. The exchange was a political requirement for both men, but neither government is going to change the other in this field. In each case, world and domestic opinion might.
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