Cuba and the United States facing 2016

HAVANA — This will be an election year in the United States and every political act will be seen through the prism of electoral convenience. The topic of Cuba does not escape this conditioning, especially in terms of Washington’s actions regarding the advancement of relations between the two countries.

Reestablishing relations with Cuba was a solid success for the Obama administration, to the point that — except from the Cuban-American extreme right — no political sector has firmly opposed that decision.

So far, the topic of Cuba has barely surfaced in the presidential debates. It is quite obvious that the Republicans are avoiding it so as not to expose their internal contradictions while the Democrats are doing it for the opposite reason, since it is not an issue of dispute between the party’s candidates.

Nevertheless, the Democrats, in particular the government, have exploited it in the media, knowing that rapprochement is in their favor. It was an issue stressed by the President and the secretary of State in their year-end messages.

There is even talk that Obama plans to travel to Cuba before his term of office ends, presumably in March during a foreign tour.

However, this is no assurance that the administration is willing to take decisive steps to solve the fundamental problems remaining in the process of normalization of relations.

Regarding issues such as the return of the Naval Base at Guantánamo and the correction of U.S. immigration policy toward Cuba — two issues that have priority in the Cuban agenda — the government of the United States has expressed its decision not to alter its policies.

This means that it is in the enforcement of the economic blockade that President Obama’s real willingness to consolidate his Cuba policy will be decided.

As is well known, the total lifting of the blockade — “embargo,” according to U.S. terminology — is up to Congress, and it will be very difficult before the elections to find a consensus to eliminate the complex skein of laws that regulate it.

Perhaps the most that can be hoped for in this context is to manage a lifting of the restrictions on the travel of U.S. tourists to Cuba, and to approve amendments that facilitate trade in the food sector, especially granting credit and other facilities to the Cuban side.

If these steps were taken, they’d be important steps forward, but the dynamics of the electoral process and the polarization that exists in the Congressional body make it difficult to assure their materialization.

The real capacity to consolidate the efforts accomplished lies in the President’s willingness to use his executive powers to soften the blockade’s impact — a policy that Obama himself has criticized — and that leads us again to analyze the electoral equation.

Evidently, Obama doesn’t want to do something that might be interpreted as “gratuitous concessions” to Cuba, an argument central to his opponents’ criticism. He has made it quite clear that any forward movement depends on the domestic “changes” made by the Cuban side.

That stance breaks away from the premise of equality that has characterized the negotiations and places Cuba in the impossible situation of having to consider issues that are essential to its sovereignty in exchange for actions that can only have a unilateral purpose on the part of the U.S., inasmuch as the measures adopted by the U.S. against Cuba are unilateral.

It is true that the pressures urging the President to consolidate U.S. policy toward Cuba are many, and that those demands to the Cuban side might be only rhetorical, so it is not out of the question that some new executive measures will be taken to make the blockade more flexible — especially if Obama’s interest in visiting the island becomes reality.

But in the end everything depends on the cost/benefit relation with which Obama’s actions are calculated, from the electoral point of view.

Another factor that can influence these decisions is its legal complexity, the administration’s fear that some executive measure might be interpreted as a violation of the law and challenged in court by its adversaries. I imagine that government attorneys are engaged in interminable discussions on that account, something that could paralyze or limit the President’s decisions.

With reason, some analysts posit that unless Obama moves forward in the adoption of new executive actions — in particular authorizing the use of the U.S. dollar in financial and commercial transactions — he would affect the interest of the economic sectors and limit the real impact of the measures adopted.

That would deny momentum to his policy and endanger what some consider one of the main “legacies” of his administration.

I’m not sure that the legacy of the first black president in U.S. history depends on his policy toward Cuba or any other policy. It lies precisely in his condition as the first black president, a status he holds since 2008, although any success will have a bearing on his historical evaluation — and his policy toward Cuba is part of this logic.

The issue here is to guess whether Obama feels satisfied by his achievements until now or if he is willing to run the risks implied by making this policy bulletproof and irreversible, as well as if that opinion is shared by whoever is chosen as the Democratic candidate in the November elections.

Another basic problem in the policy adopted by the U.S. government toward Cuba this year will be its vision of the Cuban situation.

Although the reestablishment of relations with the U.S. has facilitated Cuba’s insertion into the world market and broadened its international relations, the global economic crisis and the temporary reversal experienced by the progressive processes in Latin America, especially in Venezuela, foretell a very complex economic situation, which is reflected in the predictions of growth in 2016.

That situation could stimulate a U.S. desire to “negotiate on its own terms” and maintain the pressure on Cuba, limiting the adoption of new measures that might render the economic blockade more flexible.

Again, the most important variable in this dynamics will be Cuba’s ability to deal with the oncoming situation. The Seventh Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, to be held in April, will be a determining moment to channel the transformations required by the economic model and to articulate the domestic consensus about it.

It will define the course that Cuba will follow in the next several years, which will be decisive for the future of its relations with the United States.

Seen thus, 2016 looms as an exceedingly complex year for the development of U.S.-Cuba relations and as a defining year for the future. At the very least, it will influence the characteristics of those relations’ continuity in the new scenario — always changing and uncertain — created by the election of a new U.S. president, be he (or she) Democratic or Republican.

[Photo at top: A U.S. diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Havana greeting a Cuban employee on July 20, 2015, the day when the Cuban Embassy opened in Washington. That day in Havana, the diplomats celebrated the event by giving U.S. flags to the Cuban employees as they arrived in the building.]