Obama, the U.S. vote at the U.N., and the blockade

HAVANA — Assuming an unusual stance in international diplomacy, President Barack Obama distanced himself from the U.S. laws that regulate the economic blockade against Cuba and directed his delegation to abstain from voting at the United Nations General Assembly, which for the past 24 years has condemned that policy.

It is true that the U.S. president has expressed himself publicly in this manner, but to do so officially in the world’s most important multilateral organization is not only a show of consistency with his ideas but also a challenge to the authority of Congress that will have repercussions inside U.S. society.

To a great degree, this decision reflects the political polarization that exists in the United States and the discredit of its institutions, as the surveys show. Besides, acting in this manner when the elections in that country are about to be decided is an indicator that both the president and the Democratic Party candidate believe that the blockade is such an unpopular policy that, rather than damage them, this attitude will benefit them in the quest.

In the policy directive he issued on Oct. 14, Obama expressed his strategic position regarding this matter:

“Endogenous changes underway in Cuba offer opportunities to advance U.S. interests and shift away from an embargo, which is an outdated burden on the Cuban people and has impeded U.S. interests,” the president said in that document. “My Administration has repeatedly called on the Congress to lift the embargo.”

This translates into a need to eradicate the blockade because, from his point of view, it is convenient for U.S. policy, both to promote the changes that he hopes will occur in Cuba and to eliminate a factor of tension with his allies and the international isolation that the U.S. is experiencing in this affair.

Until that happens, the policy has had to be exercised through presidential prerogatives, within the framework allowed to him by law. There is a broad debate, even among legal specialists, as to the extent of those prerogatives, which goes from those who opine that the president can eliminate the blockade with one stroke of the pen to those who think that his possibilities in that regard have been exhausted.

The majority view does not lean one way or the other but recognizes that the president has done quite a lot but not enough — and he can do more.

Obama has had to act in this uncertainty and no doubt his decisions have been influenced by the belief that no excuses should be given that would allow a legal ruling, given by any U.S. judge, to halt the development of his policy.

Another argument is that the gradual pace of the advances constitutes a mechanism of pressure against Cuba and allows the U.S. to retain the capacity to direct the changes in terms of its interests, by granting privileges to those sectors that he considers “agents of change” within Cuban society.

Nobody can be sure that these ideas are not on the minds of some U.S. functionaries, people who could gain strength whoever becomes the next President of the United States, but I don’t believe this is the case with Obama.

His policy responds to a long-range view based on the supposition that the political and ideological influence he hopes to augment in Cuba requires an economic base that supports it, and that is only possible by facilitating the large-scale penetration of U.S. capital, which is impossible so long as the economic blockade exists.

The problem is that the blockade is expressed in such a skein of laws and provisions (which also have legal weight due to the Helms-Burton Act) that it is impossible to dismantle it “bit by bit” until only the shell is left, as some people think.

While even a single one of those conditions exists, we cannot talk about a normal relationship. The U.S. businessmen themselves will be afraid to get involved in the Cuban market because of the legal risks, the economic cost and the lack of understanding raised by these regulations.

This is, therefore, a battle being waged in the heart of U.S. society, particularly in Congress. Those who have said that “Obama leaves but the blockade stays” are quite right, but, in my opinion, during his two terms, the conditions never existed for lifting it, not even when the Democratic Party had a majority in Congress.

In favor of the blockade’s lifting in the future are objective factors determined by the real obsolescence of that policy, its lack of popularity in the U.S. itself, and the pressure from business sectors interested in the Cuban market. That explains the rare level of bipartisan support enjoyed by the new policy toward Cuba and the inability of its opponents to halt its advance so far.

As he himself as said, Obama has acted on behalf of the U.S. interests, but his vision of these interests is expressed (at least in the case of Cuba) within a framework of coexistence that in no way resembles the situation in the past. Barely 15 years ago, what was discussed was the possibility of U.S. military invasion. “Cuba after Iraq” was the slogan wielded by neoconservative hawks.

To deny the advance achieved in bilateral relations and the advantages they offer the Cuban people is meaningless, although that doesn’t imply ignoring the persistence of the United States’ hegemonic objectives and developing the capacity to deal with their more noxious consequences.

We are at an unprecedented moment in the relations between our two countries, a time when it’s important to appreciate the triumph of a “culture of resistance” that now has to find other forms of expression and act in correspondence with the new reality.

Evidently, Ambassador Samantha Power overflowed with joy when she announced at the U.N. her government’s decision. Anyone who has lived the experience of diplomacy knows how much one suffers when it becomes necessary to defend positions that are personally not shared. No doubt, the ambassador felt that a weight was being lifted from her conscience and let her emotions come to the fore.

We shouldn’t forget either that the world applauded her for not supporting the continuation of a policy of aggression and displaying a sincerity unusual in U.S. foreign policy, not for anything else.

Indeed, Obama leaves and the blockade stays, but he has set down precedents for its elimination that can hardly be ignored by U.S. politicians — and that is to Cuba’s advantage.

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