Cuba-U.S.: The privilege of a spring

A few days ago, we found ourselves at the colloquium “Cuba: Sovereignty and Future,” the inaugural session of the Cuba Possible project in the city of Cárdenas, in Matanzas province.

The  Cuban essayist and researcher Jesús Arboleya was one of the speakers, speaking on the topic “Integration and the Strengthening of Cuban Sovereignty.” A few hours before our meeting, from Havana and Washington, through a video conference, analysts from both countries had sketched possible scenarios of a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, convinced that it can be done.

While we chatted, we learned of the publication by The New York Times of an editorial that asks Obama to lift the “embargo.”

All this happens after two books have been published (“Back Channel to Cuba” and “From Confrontation to Attempts at Normalization: U.S. Policy Toward Cuba”), written from both shores and intended to document the ways in which, for more than 50 years, the U.S. administrations attempted to establish bridges of communication with the Cuban government.

Many of those bridges were blown up, true, but merely the intention to build them could have changed the history between the two countries.

No better context could be found for a conversation with Arboleya, a habitual contributor to Progreso Weekly. It was obligatory to ask him if President Obama or his successor could initiate — by himself and in a short time — a change in policy without encountering the obstacles raised by a Congress controlled by legislators who want to maintain the existing policy toward Cuba.


Jesús Arboleya: Historically, there has always been tension between the United States’ legislative and executive powers, especially in the field of foreign policy. The President of the United States has a lot of independence and much authority in the definition of foreign policy. But at the same time, Congress has many ways to limit that power.

Congress has been able to set rules, some of them legislative, others of an economic nature. If you have a policy and are stripped of a budget (one of the faculties of Congress) you practically cannot execute the policy, unless you take advantage of other types of budgetary allocations.

Milena Recio: The Helms-Burton Law, which consecrated and compiled the policy of blockade against Cuba, attempts to limit that presidential power. 

J.A: The very existence of a law like the Helms-Burton Act, which has codified all the old measures and others dealing with the economic blockade, becomes an obstacle. However, there is no law that prevents the normalization of diplomatic relations. That, in fact, is the President’s prerogative.

Therefore, we could witness the contradiction that — even with the blockade in place — diplomatic relations could exist, possibly even normal relations, because there have never been normal relations between Cuba and the U.S., neither before nor after the Cuban Revolution. In my opinion, the most that Cuba can aspire to in its relations with the U.S. is a coexistence between opponents.

M.R: There could be issues such as the war on drug trafficking, or migration.

J.A: The Helms-Burton Law is an obstacle, but the President has ways to deal with that obstacle, if he so wishes, if that willingness exists. For example, the President can decide to authorize the travel of all U.S. Americans to Cuba.

M.R: Without the need for a license.

J.A: Without the need for a license, or through a general license that says that all citizens of the United States can travel to Cuba.

The Helms-Burton Law says that they cannot travel for the purpose of tourism. The President has two choices: either he goes to Congress and seeks an amendment to the Helms-Burton Law that eliminates that restriction, or simply says that the reason [for the license] is not tourism but people-to-people contacts, cultural exchanges, etc. At the same time, he removes the restrictions on spending, etc.

That, in practice, works like tourism, because it’s madness to think that you’re going to place conditions on where a person is going to sleep, what he’s going to eat, whether or not he buys a soda, and so on.

Another example. He can enter into agreements or accords (though those may not be the proper terms) on a whole range of topics of common interest, such as traveler protection, mail exchange, the protection of territorial waters from the possible spill of hydrocarbons.

If the OFAC [U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control] eliminates the condition that trade between the U.S. and Cuba has to be paid in cash and in advance, opening the possibility of credit, the trade would become normal, like anywhere else. That is also a prerogative of the President of the United States.

M.R: I remember something that Cuban essayist Esteban Morales either said or wrote about these issues. He said that no policy will change until the cost of maintaining it is greater than the cost of changing it.

J.A: To the United States today, it is difficult to maintain its policy toward Cuba, and not only because of Cuba. This has to do with the United States’ relations with Latin America, with its internal situation, with the growing interests of a whole series of sectors, etc.

But to change it also has a political cost, and that cost-benefit analysis is what defines the policy to be adopted.

As I  see it, Obama has not been willing to change the policy toward Cuba, not because of an ideological problem (much less political prejudice) but because he has been a president besieged by conflicts.

What will be the political cost for Obama of a change of policy toward Cuba, especially before the 2016 elections? Everything indicates that it should benefit him — or at least not harm him — but neither should we overestimate the impact his action would have.

To a great majority of Americans, even though surveys say they would support a change in policy toward Cuba, that’s not their primary interest. Other factors will influence the elections, and the campaign agendas will concentrate in them.

To some, Obama will have a chance from 2014 to 2016, because those are his final years in power, and Hillary [Clinton] has announced that she would approve of a change in policy. In other words, that would not be an act of interference. It may happen.

I also think that there is a majority consensus in the U.S. that the policy must be changed. It is difficult to talk with a functionary or specialist who deals with Cuba and not hear that the policy is — as Obama himself said — “outdated.”

M.R: And he said that in Miami.

J.A: And he didn’t say it idly, in Jorge Mas Santos’ home last November. The next elections could be interesting, because they can bring to the surface the importance of the topic of Cuba in local elections.

M.R: One important indicator of that movement could be, for example, the election — or defeat — of Charlie Crist in Florida.

J.A: Charlie Crist has expressed one of the most interesting positions about the need to change U.S. policy toward Cuba that I have heard in Florida.

He practically didn’t speak of Cuban-Americans; he said that [a policy change] means business for Florida, that it involves all of Florida. He’s attributing a different dimension to the problem because it is a policy that everyone has considered to be a patrimony of Cubans, and those who decide are the Cuban-Americans. But Crist is saying, “No, this affects us all.”

He might be the worst critic of the Cuban government, but that’s not the point. He deals with the topic of relations because it’s good business. That’ a very interesting element. There is also Joe García’s election; that could be another indicator.

The most important thing is: What is the specific weight of the Cuban-American vote? In other words, it is assumed that a majority of Cuban-Americans want a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba, especially in the area of flexibilization of travel and exchanges. That’s a given.

The question is: Is that concern so important that it will influence their vote, or do they have other, more pressing problems regardless of U.S. policy toward Cuba? That could be a variable.

But I think that the result, whatever it is, the possibility of studying the behavior of the Cuban-American vote in the elections for governor [of Florida] and in District 26, will be very important for the 2016 elections.

M.R: The scenario of a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba is something you see as the result of a unilateral decision by the U.S., or as a dialogue table where both parties reach agreements. The Cuban government has said that it has topics on its agenda that it could put on that table; so has the U.S. government.

J.A: The problem lies in the absolute asymmetry between the two positions. Cuba demands that the U.S. change its policy toward Cuba; the U.S. demands that Cuba change its domestic policy.

We are talking about two completely different issues, because it’s like saying that Cuba is demanding that the U.S. change its capitalist regime and build socialism before relations can be established. We’re saying that the U.S. is entering the debate from a hegemonic stance.

Every step that the U.S. takes to flexibilize its policy toward Cuba, Cuba interprets as a failure of the United States’ aggressive policy toward Cuba.

From our side, the tale that lifting the blockade will cause us more harm doesn’t hold water. What’s happened is that we’ve grown so accustomed to it that it’s like living in a cold country where everybody wears overcoats year-round and people have never enjoyed the privilege of spring or a worthwhile summer. The same happens to us.

That negotiation must start from the premise that the United States — even if it doesn’t renounce its hegemonic intentions — must at least reach a conclusion that the methods it has used for that purpose are no longer functional.

And that’s the most common argument nowadays among those U.S. policymakers who posit changing the policy against Cuba. Notice this: nobody says that it’s because Cuba deserves that change. No, it’s because “it hasn’t been effective.”

M.R: With its weakened economy, worn out precisely because of that policy, going through economic reforms that don’t quite jell, is Cuba in a situation to confront that hegemonic intention in a possible dialogue?

J.A: Sure, every historic moment has its own dynamics, so at this point we’re not going to guess exactly what will happen. And all the actors in a kind of political dynamics like this one have their own objectives and try to satisfy them.

Obviously, it would be a brand-new scenario. For 50-some years, we have become accustomed to function in a scenario of aggression, and we prepared well for that. If that changes tomorrow, we’ll have to function in a totally different scenario.

M.R: We’ll have to make adjustments.

J.A: At a conference with Americans once, they emphasized what the U.S. lost with its current policy against Cuba. I posed a question in the opposite direction: And what do they win? Because if that’s the policy they’ve maintained for 50-some years, they think that they’re winning something.

Yes, they have won. They managed to paralyze Cuba’s influence in many fields. At one point, they managed to practically isolate Cuba from the continent. They’ve also won with the attrition caused by having to function under restrictive economic conditions. They’ve even cast doubt onto the socialist system’s ability to generate wealth, in other words, they’ve won many things.

They pounced on the Cuban example and managed to damage it considerably, to the point that today even the people in Latin America who support the Cuban Revolution say, “Yes, but that’s not my model.”

M.R: But they haven’t brought it down. That’s my point.

J.A: The problem is that the capacity for survival displayed by the Cuban Revolution in the face of those attacks has been unprecedented in this world. Most countries wouldn’t last 48 hours in a situation like this one, and we have lasted 50-some years. Which also shows you the potential this system has had to resist those inconveniences.

Cuba without a blockade will mean a change in situation, where the Cuban political forces will have to make their own decisions as to how to face the problem. And there’ll be other dynamics, other contradictions and other political forces in the fray.

Perhaps there will not be a discussion about the possibility of armed aggression, but there will be a discussion about the preponderant role of some U.S. corporation in some line of activity.

The blockade is unsustainable from an ethical point of view. The U.S. has no reason to maintain the policy it has toward Cuba. What it does, in effect, is to degrade its own moral authority, because placing Cuba on a list of terrorist countries puts an end to the list of terrorist countries. Already, the whole world questions the list, with all the other countries listed.

One moment in time will be decisive: the period between 2014 and 2016, Obama’s two final years and the first two years of Cuba’s next president. Why? Because in 2018 the historical leadership of the Revolution will end and another dynamics will begin. And, for sure, it won’t begin on the day the previous one ends.

We’ll see. Everybody says that, if a Republican like [Jeb] Bush wins, it would be most unfortunate, but if another Republican wins, perhaps it won’t be so bad. We actually moved with some flexibility during Nixon’s administration, when that process began.

M.R: Obama himself has been a very eclectic president. And to end this conversation, last Saturday [Oct. 11], The New York Times published an editorial on the topic of Cuba, titled “Obama Should End the Embargo on Cuba.” It’s not the first time that a U.S. mainstream medium submits to the chief executive an agenda of steps to take with Cuba, leading to a normalization of relations. What specific importance could that signal have now? 

J.A: It’s already quite obvious that a majority of public opinion in the United States supports a change in policy toward Cuba. The fact that a newspaper as important as The New York Times confirms and reinforces that position is nothing to sneer at.

Particularly because [The Times] must also be reflecting a certain consensus within the government apparatus, thereby attempting to influence the political dynamics. It’s a signal.

It’s impossible to predict Obama’s decision in the present circumstances, but at least we can hope that, during his administration, anything he does to change this worst-of-all-possible scenarios will be an improvement.