Image: Ed Yourdon

On December 17, 2014 Barack Obama announced a drastic reorientation of U.S. policy towards Cuba: diplomatic relations were to be restored, travel restrictions and remittances guidelines loosened, business and trade relations to be expanded, all with the ultimate goal of normalizing relations between the two countries. Cuba has largely been forgotten in the United States since the end of the Cold War. The news was a reminder that, as friends or enemies, the United States and Cuba have been close for two centuries. Now the decades of hostility, mutual suspicion, and ideological fervor appear to be drawing to a close. Since the news, talks have been held, Cuba has released prisoners, travel restrictions have loosened, and the United States is considering removing Cuba from the list of states that support terrorism.

December 17th is an important date in the Cuban calendar: the feast of Saint Lazarus, known in the Afro-Cuban religion of Regla de Ocha (aka santería) as Babalú Ayé. He is the orisha, or patron saint, of the sick, and every year Cubans honor him at a shrine in Rincón, forty-five minutes east of Havana. Throngs of people drag themselves on the ground—often bleeding—to make reverence, give thanks, or express penance in ways that are astounding. No doubt, the relationship between Cuba and the United States, the most intimate of enemies, has been ailing for decades. Perhaps the curative powers of Babalú-Ayé could lead way to a healthy future.

Cubans have long memories. Cuba has lived under the shadow of three superpowers: Spain (for four centuries), the United States (for sixty years), and the USSR (for thirty years), not to mention its African heritage—a history of enslavement and resistance. Even before the U.S. intervention in the Spanish-America-Cuban War in 1898, the United States was the island’s largest trading partner and made several attempts to purchase the island from Spain or annex the island through military adventurers known as filibusteros. During the nineteenth century it was viewed in the press first as a ripe fruit ready to drop into the hands of a benevolent imperial overlord, then as a woman needing rescue from Spanish colonialism, a child learning to ride a bicycle in the first decades of the twentieth century, a junior partner in the Caribbean and Latin America from the 1930s through the ‘50s, and, finally, an implacable adversary and Communist menace after 1959.

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The post-1959 period has been fraught with nationalizations, invasion, nuclear showdown and bitter exchanges at the UN. However, on the positive side, the USSR no longer exists and Cuba’s military presence in the Third World is almost non-existent compared to thirty years ago; there are no guerrilla insurgencies in the Americas that would cause friction (as happened in the 1980s in Central America under President Reagan), and it has been twenty years since there was a crisis related to immigration. In fact, Cuba’s new travel rules, effective since January 2013, allow Cubans to travel up to two years before returning home and have eliminated the red tape in obtaining permission to travel. There are many areas where Cuba and the United States are either cooperating or could improve on what is already being done: science, health, education, sports, climate change and weather data, and cultural exchange.

However, areas that might offer more challenges are the Helms–Burton Act, the trade embargo, human rights, and some aspects of immigration policy. The Helms-Burton Act says that the United States will not improve relations or lift the embargo unless both Castro brothers are out of the picture and Cuba has been restored to a democratic system (free elections, a multi-party system, and freedom of the press). In other words, full regime change. The United States does not have this legislative charge toward any other country in the world. Imagine if Cuba insisted that to deal with the United States, we would need to adopt a single-payer free health care system, provide education free all the way through college, and hold elections with at least three parties on the ticket.

Cuba is faced with many changes in a short period of time; going too fast could be de-stabilizing both economically and politically.  

Because it links the embargo to the regime, the Cubans do not refer to the Helms-Burton bill as an embargo, but instead use bloqueo (blockade), a term with more belligerent connotations. As they see it, the embargo is an act of economic warfare, and most of the world agrees. At the United Nations, the General Assembly has voted in favor of lifting the economic sanctions for twenty-three straight years: the most recent vote was 188-2 (United States and Israel against) with three abstentions (Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands).

The Cubans estimate that the bloqueo has cost Cuba $1.1 trillion dollars over the last fifty-three years. Although the figure can be disputed, there is no doubt that its has been devastating for the Cuban economy and a major rationale for the government’s economic and political policies. If the embargo was meant to squeeze Cuba and have them abandon their revolutionary course, why are the Castro brothers still in power?  Indeed, many non-Cubans who argue for lifting the sanctions state that Cuba has used it as an excuse for the (mis)handling of the economy and for maintaining a strict political oversight over its population.

Eliminating Helms-Burton and the embargo will take acts of Congress, which is highly unlikely in the short-run given the current Republican make-up of both houses. What is likely, unless something in the short run derails the process, is a slow chipping away at the embargo through different measures or executive actions.

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The United States cites human rights as an issue in restoring full relations. Though this stipulation will probably cause Cuba to offer improvements, it will be a source of annoyance. The United States does not alter its policy with Saudi Arabia —and a host of other non-democratic regimes, from China to Egypt— based on human rights. Why is Cuba the exception?

At the heart of the issue is the way both countries see the issue of human rights. The United States focuses on individual and civil rights, and Cuba on social rights (housing, education, health, employment, sports, culture). In the ‘80s and early 90s, the United States used the UN’s Human Rights Commission to try and embarrass Cuba by urging a series of votes to condemn Cuba as a “severe human rights violator.” Countries were pressured by U.S. ambassadors and foreign aid was threatened as part of President Reagan’s larger crusade to defeat the Soviet Union and its allies. For example, the United States will criticize Cuba for the way it handles a dissident, by denying them media attention, harassing them, or worse: incarceration. (Cubans are wary of the word “dissident” because it has very negative connotations; in part because Cubans claim one out of every four dissidents is an agent of the Cuban government, in part because of funding they get from the US, which allows them to be tainted as “unpatriotic” and “bought off by foreign interests”). Cuba, on the other hand, responds by saying that the United States has tens of millions of people without health care coverage, millions who are homeless, and an abysmal record on worker’s rights or what constitutes a living wage. .

If they can agree to disagree perhaps progress will be made, but the United States cannot simply insist that their view of human rights is the only one. The recent release of fifty-three political prisoners by Cuba no doubt reflects a new relationship between the two countries. But don’t expect Cuba to become a full-fledged parliamentary democracy anytime soon.

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Immigration issues need to be resolved on both sides. The United Statesmust abandon its Cold War mentality; Americans can no longer treat every Cuban who wants to leave Cuba as a political refugee. To a degree, this has begun to change: President Clinton’s “wet foot, dry foot” policy was a step toward recognizing that many Cubans fleeing the island were doing so for economic, family, or personal reasons. It allowed Cubans who arrive on American soil to stay, but returns people caught on the seas to Cuba. It also gave Cubans the possibility to apply for residency after only a year in the United States and to receive benefits (food stamps, Medicare and Medicaid). Because of this preferential treatment, Cuba insists that the United States is still egging Cubans to “defect”, offering them incentives that, for example, are not extended to Mexicans or Haitians. There is an element of truth to this.

But normalization also tends to keep illegal arrivals low. The wet foot, dry foot policy presents a significant improvement, and the proportion of undocumented Cubans who are stopped on a yearly basis is quite low compared to those who arrive legally. The policy (the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966) will probably need to be changed at some point in the future— and any new policy must take its success into account. And for its part, Cuba needs to move toward a complete decriminalization of those who want to leave.

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The “San Lázaro news” was received well in Havana, particularly among small businesspeople, cuentapropistas, who now number around 300,000, a huge increase over a decade ago.  There is a growing number of non-state economic actors participating in Cuba’s economy. People are now allowed to sell their homes and vehicles, not to mention start a restaurant, a repair shop, or retail stores that might sell clothing, DVDs (bootleg, of course), jewelry, or school supplies. Yet setting up one’s own business is no easy task: residents have to reckon with paperwork, bureaucratic entanglement, onerous taxes, and difficulties in obtaining materials or goods to keep the business functioning smoothly.

Cuba’s economy is facing many challenges: low rates of investment (especially foreign), a crumbling infrastructure, an unreliable communications network, a high level of foreign debt, low worker morale and productivity, and shoddy goods, not to mention chronic shortages of all types of products. Cuba is not a member of the IMF or the World Bank (though it has been a member of the WTO since 1995), which could supply some badly needed cash, investment, and credit. When purchasing goods from the United States, Cuba must pay in cash upfront.

A further complication is the country’s dual currency: the Cuban peso and what is called a convertible currency—CUC, somewhat equivalent to the dollar. The rate of pesos to CUC is 24 to 1. For example, a Cuban worker might earn 350 pesos a month, which in dollars translates to $14.58. That might seem pitiful (and is, to a degree), but most Cubans do not pay rent (or a mortgage; they also pay extremely low rates on electricity and gas), education and health care are free, public transportation is obscenely cheap, and the government provides certain staples (rice, beans, chicken, coffee, sugar, eggs) at a highly subsidized rate. However, what was available on the ration booklet decades ago could be stretched to last a month. Now it lasts only 10-14 days. For example, a bottle of soybean oil costs 2.50 CUC, which does not seem like a lot to us, but is the equivalent of one-sixth of a monthly salary to a Cuban. So folks do what they can to earn in dollars, euros, or CUC: doing odd jobs such as plumbing or construction, driving cabs, starting their own businesses, trading on the black market, or getting money from relatives abroad. Such remittances are now estimated at $2.5 billion, a significant component of the island’s economy. Cubans call these other sources of income el invento (I recall a few years ago taking a meticulously layered birthday cake to my aunt, lovingly made by a pair of physicians.)

There is no shortage of “Cuban transitionologists” offering alternatives models: Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Brazilian, or Swedish. Neither the Russian model nor the Brazilian model is really feasible; Cuba is not willing to dismantle the communist party nor go cold turkey into capitalism, and it has neither the resources nor the internal market that Brazil has. Sweden, which has a population close to that of Cuba, has a tradition of innovation, an industrial base, and transparency in government that Cuba does not. So there’s China and Vietnam: both countries ruled by Communist parties that are making transitions to market-style economies, but keeping a strong role of the state in economic affairs. Cuba, of course, is no match for China in terms of market potential or the sheer enormity of its economy. The Chinese model has also caused a significant rise in inequality, which alarms Cuba. While Deng Xaoping said: “It doesn’t matter whether the cat is black or brown, the important thing is that it catch mice,” the common saying in Cuba is, “Let’s have the cat be red and still catch mice”. A tall order to be sure. Vietnam presents a most attractive model of promoting a high growth rate (like China) without increased inequality and a degraded social safety net. But both China and Vietnam have been making these changes for three decades and trying out things gradually. Cuba is faced with many changes in a short period of time; going too fast could be de-stabilizing both economically and politically.  

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A quarter century ago the Berlin Wall fell and many predicted —especially after the implosion of the USSR in 1991—that Cuba would soon follow suit. Why didn’t it? Many explanations have been offered, from Fidel’s charisma to the nationalist credentials of the regime and the tenacious defense of its sovereignty, to the government’s steadfast commitment to social equality, health, education, and culture, to the image of the anti-imperialist David fighting the imperial Goliath. Some claim that the last twenty-five years have been a slow-motion funeral awaiting the culminating event—the death of Fidel. The more optimistic believe that Cuba, perhaps inspired by their new Latin American allies, Venezuela and Bolivia, might offer a version of twenty-first socialism in the long run. I am neither among the mourners (or those cheering the funeral) nor the optimists, even if I believe Cuba can learn from alter-globalization policies of other countries or movements (e.g., Bolivia, Venezuela, the World Social Forum, the Zapatistas).  

In 1968, when Chou en Lai was asked about his overall assessment of the French Revolution two centuries before he said it was too early to tell. Despite our desires (or anxieties) in wanting to pass judgment on Cuba’s radical experiment, we should write a hasty obituary. Perhaps a joke sums up the contradictions and resilience of revolutionary Cuba: A spy is sent by the CIA to find out all he can about Cuba and report back to the President. After observing Cuba for a while he reports the following: “Mr. President, there’s no unemployment, but nobody works. Nobody works, but according to the statistics, all the production quotas are met. All the production quotas are met but there’s nothing in the stores. There’s nothing in the stores, but everyone eats. Everyone eats but everyone complains that there’s no food and no deodorants or soap. There’s no food but people look well-nourished and smell nice. People complain constantly but they all go to the plaza and rabidly cheer Fidel. Mr. President, we have all the data but there is no conclusion to make.” Cuba has survived all matter of adversities, and against all odds. Surely, it will continue to surprise us, perhaps even with the blessings of Marx and Babalú-Ayé.