A Victory for Cuba - but it’s not over yet

Winter 2015

Dr Steve Ludlam Steve Ludlam sets out the factors leading to the rapprochement between Cuba and the US and urges the solidarity movement to be vigilant against new attacks.

The presidential announcements by Raúl Castro and Barack Obama of 17 December 2014 will go down in history as symbolising one of the most extraordinary victories in the struggle against imperialism. However, most of the blockade legislation remains, and the US has certainly not abandoned its ‘regime change’ objective. So this is not a time for complacency, but it is a moment to join Cubans in their celebrations. For, in any explanation of this normalisation of diplomatic relations and opening to normal economic relations, the most important factor is that US policy had been defeated, as Obama admitted.

For half a century the Cuban people had successfully resisted the blockade and all the other aggression and ‘dirty war’ terrorism against them, albeit at a terrible cost. The policy had not only failed, but to his would-be successor, Hilary Clinton and others, it had actually strengthened the Cubans’ defence of their sovereignty.

As he entered office in 2009, Obama was greeted with reform proposals from leading policy institutes, including a Congressional report. He had previously stated that he wanted to end the failed blockade, and in office proclaimed a vaguer ambition to reform US policy.

If he was serious then, other priorities delayed him: managing the ‘War on Terror’, introducing ‘Obamacare’, mid-term elections, and his second term prospects given his tiny 2008 election majority in Florida.

In his first term, he softened Cuban-American opposition by reversing GW Bush’s unpopular travel and remittances restrictions. But his administration imposed fierce sanctions on international banks facilitating commerce with Cuba, and made reckless and bizarre attempts to organise and fund internal opposition on the island, as CubaSí has documented.

We now know that he began talks with Cuba early in his second term. So, apart from the exhaustion of a failed policy, what other factors help explain 17 December 2014?

US isolated by Cuba

One, certainly, was that, as Obama and Secretary of State Kerry put it, a policy intended to isolate Cuba had instead isolated the US. Isolated not just in the annual UN votes against the blockade, but across Latin America, where the tide of leftwing governments had left the US isolated on the Cuba question. As Raúl Castro told Cuba’s Council of State on 22 December, “This outcome has been possible, further, thanks to profound changes in Latin America and the Caribbean whose governments and peoples share the demand for a new US policy towards Cuba.”

New continental alliances had formed, notably the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (in 2011), that included Cuba and excluded the US.

Even in the Organisation of American States (OAS), the creation of US Cold War hemispheric domination and the main diplomatic instrument used to isolate Cuba, the US faced humiliation. After the foundation of the ALBA alliance by Venezuela and Cuba to oppose it, the US Free Trade Area of the Americas plan was destroyed at the 2005 OAS Summit of the Americas. President Bush went home early, his ears ringing with the denunciations of neo-liberalism by Latin America’s new left leaders. At the 2009 Summit, the Cuba issue again dominated discussions and isolated the US. With Hilary Clinton diplomatically absenting herself, Cuba was invited to reapply for membership. Cuba declined membership of what it calls the ‘US Ministry of Colonies’. At its last Summit in 2012, the OAS was unable to issue a formal declaration at all, because of near-unanimous resistance to the US position on excluding Cuba.

In September 2014, the Panamanian government, due to host the April 2015 OAS Summit of the Americas, informed the White House that Cuba was being invited and that a large group of Latin American states, including several friendly to the US, would not attend otherwise. Obama’s hand was being forced, not least as Cuba repeatedly confirmed its willingness to enter into talks based on mutual respect and sovereignty.

Another diplomatic factor during 2014 has been ongoing EU-Cuba talks on the EU ‘Common Position’ on Cuba, and the expectation that normal bilateral relations will be resumed, leaving the US further isolated. The EU ‘Common Position’ was a US-imposed agreement, adopted in return for the US suspending the part of the 1996 ‘Helms Burton’ embargo legislation that threatened arrests of EU citizens trading with Cuba. The Common Position bound improved EU relations with Cuba to progress on US ‘regime change’ strategy. The European Parliament’s Research Service pointed out in July 2014 that a new EU-Cuba deal could ‘help pave the way’ to a new US policy.

Trade, votes, and prisoners

The possibility of normal EU relations overlaps with another factor, mentioned in Obama’s announcement, namely, ‘that American businesses should not be put at a disadvantage’, as investment capital from all over the world flows into Cuba’s ‘updating’ economy.

US businesses have been busy at international trade fairs in Havana, where, in November 2014, Cuba invited participation in $8 billion of investment projects, emphasising the that Cuban-American business were welcome to apply. And this comes on top of US capital having to watch while Brazil invested $1 billion in Cuba’s new super-container port, right opposite New Orleans. The White House has responded to mounting business pressure to let them off the embargo leash, to follow the path created by Cuban-Americans, taking advantage of Obama’s earlier measures, to fund the family businesses mushrooming in ‘updating’ Cuba.

Another political factor easing Obama’s path in his second term has been the accumulation of evidence that a majority of Cuban-American voters have come to favour normalisation.

After defying the hardliners and reversing GW Bush’s restrictions in 2009, Obama held Florida again in the 2012 presidential elections. Cuban-American families had sent a reported $2.6 billion a year in remittances to the island. The conventional wisdom on Cuban-American attitudes to normalisation has been misleading for many years.

In 2014 an Atlantic Quarterly survey showed that a majority of US citizens now supported normalisation, with the majority among Cuban-Americans even higher than the average. The 2014 University of Florida ‘Cuba Research Institute’ survey found that over two-thirds of Cuban-Americans support resumption of normal diplomatic relations and unrestricted private travel.

In early 2014 ex-Republican Governor of Florida Charlie Crist came out against the embargo, joined by Cuban-American sugar baron Alfonso Fanjul. The dominance of the old ‘Miami Mafia’ inside Cuban-America is over.

And, of course, with the US 2014 mid-term elections out of the way, the final obstacle was removed by the Vatican-endorsed prisoner swaps, reported elsewhere in this CubaSí. The pressure on the US had grown greatly in 2014. The deteriorating health of Alan Gross and concerted lobbying in the US and internationally, raised pressure for a deal to repatriate him.

2014 also witnessed a worldwide intensification of the campaign to free the remaining three ‘Cuban Five’ anti-terrorism agents, not least in the UK and the US, with CSC, politicians, British and US trade unions, and the International Commission in London, all prominent in creating pressure for the swap.

But beware of triumphalism

So a perfect storm of Cuba resistance, policy exhaustion, diplomatic, business and political pressure and irresistible demands for the prisoner swap, encircled the White House. Solidarity activists can feel delighted at Obama’s retreat, and we can take some satisfaction at having added our grains of sand to the beachhead, as a Cuban friend put it to me. Indeed, Raúl Castro directly thanked solidarity campaigns and others who had fought for the Five in his speech on 17 December, recording that, “We convey our deepest gratitude and commitment to all of them.”

However, it is not yet time to pat ourselves on the back and think of Cuba from now on only in terms of friendships, music, sunshine and rum-fuelled debates on models of socialism!

In the first place, as Raúl Castro said in his 17 December announcement, after outlining the agreements: “This in no way means that the heart of the matter has been solved. The economic, commercial and financial blockade, which causes enormous human and economic damage in our country, must cease.”

Of course, several of Obama’s steps hollow out the embargo in practice: raising caps on remittances, making it even easier for US citizens to visit Cuba and now to return with Cuban goods, licensing new exports to Cuba, lifting of controls in US-Cuba trade located in third countries, and new space for financial transactions.

And if the absurd and disgraceful ‘terror state’ designation is ended, so will the crippling sanctions on international banks and others. This may build a momentum to enable Obama, as he says he intends, to overcome congressional resistance to removing legislative obstacles to finally ending the Blockade in all its forms. He has certainly left himself plenty of room for manoeuvre in negotiations with Cuba and with Congress.

The hard-right Cuban-American lobby will make a lot of noise, and hope for a presidential victory for Jeb Bush, who successfully campaigned against the imprisonment in the US of the convicted Cubana airliner bomber, Orlando Bosch. Already the hard right and its allies in Cuba are declaring that Obama has sold out on human rights and, in Cuba itself, trying to mount street events to provoke a state backlash to prove their point.This points to the second reason why CSC members need to resist triumphalism amidst our celebrations.

The White House Fact Sheet ‘Charting a New Course for Cuba’, issued on 17 December, leaves no room whatsoever for doubt that the US has not changed its objective, only its strategy and tactics. Its concluding section is entitled ‘Unwavering Commitment to Democracy, Human Rights, and Civil Society’. As the Fact Sheet puts it, “The US Congress funds democracy programming in Cuba ...The Administration will continue to implement US programs promoting positive change in Cuba.”

So, as the blockade is wound down, the 1990s ‘Track 2’ strategy of building civil society destabilisation will be intensified. Obama, the Fact Sheet, and key measures in the announcement emphasise resourcing and influencing the growing private sector in Cuba, assuming that Cuban micro-entrepreneurs can be turned into an oppositional bourgeoisie. Indeed, Obama has to all intents and purposes already ended the blockade as far as Cuba’s private sector is concerned.

And this strategy, freed of association with the illegal, inhuman, and indefensible blockade, will attract diplomatic support. In her 2014 book, Hilary Clinton records telling Obama that the blockade was not just a failure, but “it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America. ... I thought we should shift the onus onto the Castros to explain why they remained undemocratic and abusive.”

Obama’s announced intention of turning Cuba’s presence at the 2015 OAS Summit into an attack on its political system, complete with photo-opps with prominent Cuban oppositionists, is a clear signal of that. He will be hoping that Latin American unanimity against the blockade can be split into pro-and anti-Cuba camps on the terrain of ‘representative’ democracy.

Mariela Castro, Cuban National Assembly member and gender rights campaigner, told Associated Press after the announcements that, “If the US thinks these changes will bring Cuba back to capitalism and return it to being a servile country to hegemonic interests of the most powerful financial groups in the US, they must be dreaming.”

They are still dreaming and they are still planning.

The long-advocated alternative strategy of suffocating the Revolution with dollars and consumerism is being cranked up. And, in international terms, the targets will be Cuba’s models of democracy and human rights, and their people’s sovereign right to build their ‘prosperous and sustainable socialism’. The Cuban people adopted their Constitution in 1975 in a 98 per cent yes vote, and they and their leaders are well prepared to face new political challenges. Now is a time to celebrate, but the solidarity campaign for self-determination for the people of Cuba is very far from over. Indeed, it will need to refocus and intensify its work, and be prepared for many more attempts to destroy the Cuban Revolution.

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