Why Cuba now?

The government of the United States last week announced a group of measures aimed, in their own words, at facilitating the development of the private sector in Cuba. It consists of authorizing access to Internet services and banking operations to Cuban private businesspersons, which is available throughout the world, but prohibited in the case of Cuba due to the economic blockade.

The Cuban government reacted by saying that the measures are “limited decisions and do not touch the fundamental body of the blockade against Cuba and the additional sanctions that make up the policy of maximum pressure” towards the country. However, the Cuban government warned that as long as the measures do not violate the law it would not create obstacles to its implementation, even if they only benefit a part of the population.

The stated purpose of the United States is to encourage the opposition in Cuba, through the development of a capitalist class, which will inexorably consider regime change in the country. It is striking that US rulers adopt a strategy that is based on an adulterated, deterministic and primitive interpretation of the Marxist theory of class struggle. It is like assuming that their class condition is enough for all workers to be revolutionaries.

The new measures were made known at the same time as the surprise announcement that the US would eliminate Cuba from the capricious “list of countries that do not collaborate in the fight against terrorism,” which is not the same as the “list of countries that promote terrorism,” imposed by Donald Trump in the last days of his administration, a true impediment to the country’s trade, finances and investments.

In both cases these are measures that are part of what could be considered the philosophy that inspired Obama’s policy towards Cuba, namely “achieving the same objectives by other methods,” which Biden promised to restore during his electoral campaign in 2020, in contrast to the “scorched earth” objective implemented by Trump under the auspices of the Cuban-American extreme right. However, due to internal political considerations and an opportunistic calculation of the Cuban situation, both things did not turn out that way.

Biden assumed the presidency when the Cuban economy was hitting rock bottom in the midst of one of the worst moments of the pandemic when access to its main income production was prevented under an extreme blockade and little international aid. Only the development of its own vaccines, and the full deployment of the universal health system established in the country, prevented a humanitarian disaster of enormous proportions.

It was a success for the Cuban government, although at the cost of depleting the nation’s resources, which, together with errors and insufficiencies in economic management in other fields, exacerbated social tensions to the point of the eruption of unusual protests in various locations of the country in July 2021.

There was not a single gesture of solidarity towards Cuba by the Biden administration; on the contrary, they continued to prevent access to medicines and supplies essential to confront the pandemic, as well as taking advantage of the crisis to encourage social chaos through campaigns financed by the United States that gave continuity to Trumpist policies. Evidently, the newly elected Democrats assumed that the days of the Cuban government were numbered and took on the task of not giving Republicans credit for the disaster.

The “review of Cuba policy,” which many expected would occur as soon as Biden took office, was paralyzed with the excuse that “Cuba was not a priority” for the administration. As a result, the contradiction prevailed in that the Democrats ended up administering, with the same fervor, the policy designed by their enemies.

According to some accounts, the brakes were placed by the then Biden chief of staff, Ron Klain, who had lived the experience of the 2000 elections in Miami, and was shocked by the lack of scruples on the part of the Cuban-American right. They say that, meeting with the team chosen to review the Cuban issue, many of them recognized supporters of Obama’s policy, Klain asked the key question to determine the government’s strategy:

What did the administration gain by looking for problems with the aggressive Cuban-American congressmen, among them the then powerful Democratic senator Bob Menéndez, in a context where the senatorial majority was decided by one vote, when a long legislative battle was ahead, to advance an ambitious program that emulated the Roosevelt’s New Deal?

Despite having to face record levels of irregular migration from Cuba, the Biden administration took two years to restore consular services and comply with immigration agreements unilaterally canceled by Trump five years earlier. But not even in this area, a top priority for the national security of the United States, did it advance to the point of what was achieved during the Barack Obama administration.

It does not seem, then, that the recently approved measures respond to a different appreciation of the Cuban case, nor to changes in the “cold war” vision that has characterized Biden’s foreign policy, but rather to the same reasons that previously inspired not carrying them out, in other words, American domestic politics and, in particular, the upcoming elections.

The government began talking about these measures in May 2022. In October 2023, news spread that their approval was imminent since they had even authorized the visit to that country of a delegation of Cuban businessmen who, apparently, were part of the political construction of this decision. This was not the case, according to government sources, because Congress was engaged in discussing the budget and Republican support was required.

Once that moment had been overcome and the obstacle of Bob Menéndez, once again before the courts accused of corruption, had been eliminated, it seems that there are no impediments to thinking about the elections and the infamous “review of the policy towards Cuba” can be part of the Democratic strategy.

Cuba will not be a decisive issue in this process, not even in South Florida, where the Cuban-American vote is concentrated, but it is not an ignored issue in the national political debate either and many consider it an issue of domestic politics capable of awakening passions that surpass the economic or political importance of the country. On the other hand, in an election that some predict will be very close, every vote matters. This is the arithmetic the administration works with.

No matter how hostile his policy towards Cuba may be, Biden will not win a single vote from right-wing Cuban Americans who are monopolized by the Republicans. However, Obama’s experience shows that a increase of support among liberals and moderates is possible at levels close to 50% of the votes if Biden distances himself from the policies of the right and is able to project a different image to the extremisms that overwhelms the Cuban American community.

Like the rest of the population, the electoral preference of Cuban Americans will be focused on the issues that determine their daily lives, such as the state of the economy, but also on the personal attractiveness of the candidates and the ideology they represent. All of this governed by a process of media construction, which turns the US elections into the most expensive spectacle in the world.

In that universe, around which the subjectivities of American politics revolve, is where the Cuban issue has the greatest impact. The policy towards Cuba serves to identify politicians with the doctrines that supposedly govern the country’s policy. Some use it as a bargaining chip to be “tough” against communism and others as an expression of the “smart power” that animated Obama’s policies, and is considered an important part of his “legacy” in the field of international relations.

Biden is not in good standing with various sectors of the party, who question his ability to govern and are dissatisfied with his policies. The case of Cuba is another open front, so the cost-benefit calculation is what explains the signs of change that have occurred in recent days. How far will the Biden administration go down this path? … To the extent that he and his advisors believe it is convenient for them.

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