Reflections on Cuba

Cautious Optimism?

I’ve written about Cuba previously on this site, however the recent thaw of relations between Cuba and the USA, announced yesterday by Presidents Castro and Obama, have given me cause to reflect on what this development might mean.

I’ve written a piece for Bernews on the announcement itself, so I’m going to try and not repeat myself here.

Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana.

Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana.

I am cautiously optimistic of this development.  There is no denying that the changes, as limited as they are (the embargo itself is unlikely to be lifted by a Republican controlled congress).  However, I see potential dangers for the revolution in this as well.

There’s no secret that there’s been a growing division within the USA’s ruling elite on how to best handle the Cuban problem.

They’ve tried armed invasion, they’ve tried assassination attempts, they’ve tried terrorism and they’ve tried – for over fifty years – the embargo regime.  And none of that has worked, leading to some of the elite to argue the proverbial ‘you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar’ – dropping the embargo and outright hostility and trying to bring about regime change through engagement and co-optation (or corruption…).

The Cato Institute, 2005

Indeed, I remember back in 2005 reading a report from the neoliberal think tank the Cato Institute that advocated an end to the embargo and, almost word for word, for just the developments announced by President Obama.

This report blasted the embargo as counter-productive – as actually strengthening the Cuban government led by Fidel Castro.  It also noted that the embargo placed US companies at a disadvantage while other international companies reaped profits from trade with Cuba.

This report from the Cato Institute advocated:

  1. Lifting of the travel ban.  It argued this would ultimately boost entrepreneurism, subsequently weakening the government.
  2. Restrictions on remittances should be lifted.  As above, this would ‘fuel the private sector, encourage Cuba’s modest economic reforms, and promote independence from the government‘.
  3. US farmers and medical suppliers should be able to sell products to Cuba, with financing from private commercial lenders.  It doesn’t clearly state this, but to use Marxist terminology, this would be essentially using the ‘heavy artillery of cheap commodity prices’ to undermine domestic production and, through credit, make Cuba more dependent on free trade.
  4. Modifying or ending the embargo.  It argued that this ‘would not be a victory‘ for the Cuban ‘regime‘; rather, it would be an acknowledgement ‘that commercial engagement is the best way to encourage more open societies abroad‘.  ‘Open societies’ for the Cato Institute means open markets for capitalist purposes.

The report concluded that the ‘most powerful force for change in Cuba will not be more sanctions, but more daily interaction with free people bearing dollars and new ideas‘.  Or in other words, there’s more than one way – and a more effective way than overt hostility and economic aggression – to effect regime change in Cuba.

New York Times, 2014

Much more recently – and likely a deliberate plant to ‘set the stage’ for yesterdays announcement – the New York Times had an Editorial on Monday, December 14th (that is, four days ago) which pretty much rehashed the argument from the Cato report.

Essentially, it noted that the Cuban leadership was split between a reformist camp wanting to adopt a Chinese model of capitalist reforms and an ‘old guard’ that ‘views further liberalisation of the economy as an abdication of the socialist system’.  Based on this division – with Raul Castro being part of the reformist camp – it argues that (and it’s worth quoting this in full):

“President Obama could help expand the role of Cuba’s small but growing entrepreneurial class by relaxing sanctions through executive authority and working with the growing number of lawmakers who want to expand business with Cuba.  The White House could start that process by removing Cuba from the State Department list of countries that sponsor terrorist organisations and making it easier for Americans to provide start-up capital for independent small businesses.  Doing that would empower Cuban-Americans to play a more robust role in the island’s economic transformation.  More significantly, it would gradually erode the Cuban government’s ability to blame Washington for the shortcomings of an economy that is failing its citizens largely as a result of its own policies.”

And it concludes that:

“Washington could empower the reformist camp by making it easier for Cuban entrepreneurs to get external financing and business training.  That type of engagement is unlikely to succeed unless the United States abandons its policy of regime change.  Cuba’s economic transformation may be proceeding slowly, but it could well lead to a more open society.  For now, continued antagonism from Washington is only helping the old guard.”

I don’t know about other readers, but to me, I find it pretty contradictory to call for the US to abandon a policy of regime change in order to enact regime change (ensuring a victory for the reformist camp over the ‘old guard’ camp)…

Reformists Versus Old Guard (& 21st Century Socialists…)

Now, this division in the Cuban leadership is not, unfortunately, a fantasy of the New York Times.

I wrote about this myself in 2008, detailing my last visit to Cuba in 2006, where I was fortunate enough to participate in a joint meeting of the Cuban Communist Party, the higher ranking Cuban military officials and representatives of the Cuban international solidarity movement.

While there were a number of issues on the agenda, the underlying theme of this joint meeting was the debate between the reformists (who advocated the Chinese model), the ‘old guard’ who advocated the status quo and cautioned against capitalistic reforms that would undermine the revolution’s gains, and a third group, which I guess one could call Bolivarians or ’21st Century socialists’ who argued for a deepening of the revolution – essentially a turn towards revolutionary democratic socialism rather than the authoritarian lite socialism that was the status quo in Cuba.

Now, I haven’t been back to Cuba since, although I’ve certainly kept an eye on developments there.  My reading is that the reformist camp – advocates of a Chinese model – have become the dominant group within the government, led as they are by Raul Castro, who’s in a position to advance reformists throughout the state machinery.

The Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy (Centro de Estudios de la Economia Cubana – CEEC), part of the University of Havana, has been a particular part of this reformist ascendancy.  For example, this article from April this year, or this interesting paper from late 2013, both originating from the CEEC, make some useful reading for understanding the approach of the reformists.

Be Watchful Always

So, yes, cautious optimism is I think the best way to describe my thinking on the US-Cuban thaw.

Optimism because I know it will benefit a lot of people in Cuba, and because I think it opens a potential for deepening the revolution (in case there’s any doubt, I was in the 21st Century Socialists faction in the joint meeting).

Cautious because I do believe that the USA is not dropping its policy of regime change at all, just adopting a different strategy to realise that goal.  I believe the USA’s new approach is to try and either boost the reformist camp to secure the Chinese model in Cuba (which they can work with, as we know) and so ‘co-opt’ or, rather, corrupt, the revolution; or to destablise the Cuban Government sufficiently to allow for a full-on counter-revolution.

In practice I don’t really see a difference between a counter-revolution proper and a de facto  counter-revolution through the entrenchment of the Chinese model in Cuba.

As I wrote in 2008, the key to Cuban revolutions future is the success or failure of the current revolutionary movements in Latin America, specifically Ecuador, Bolivia and, most importantly, Venezuela.

And at the moment those movements, particularly Venezuela, are experiencing a good degree of turbulence, be it from US orchestrated destabilisation attempts or the collapse of the oil price affecting the economy of oil-dependent Venezuela (which of course can also strengthen destabilisation attempts).  Not to mention that President Maduro has had trouble filling the big shoes left by Chavez’s death.

Now, if I was a pessimist I’d probably reckon the chances are, with a reformist camp in ascendancy in Havana and a troubled Venezuela, that this new strategy by the USA will, indeed, achieve the goal that fifty years of open hostility and blockades failed to do, that is achieve regime change.

However, I’m hopeful that the revolutionary movements in Latin America will rebound, and new revolutionary movements will develop elsewhere, contributing to a blossoming of neo-socialist thought everywhere, including in Cuba, mitigating the risks of the reformist path I fear Raul Castro’s government is heading in.

So, yes, cautious optimism…

Hasta la Victoria Siempre!





5 thoughts on “Reflections on Cuba

  1. [President Obama – edited] the Hawaiian beach boy shows he’s a socialist [stooge – edited]. Obama traded a horse for a rabbit
    With the Soviet Union dead and gone, with Russia no longer able to buy up Cuba’s sugar crop at inflated prices, with oil prices having tanked and Venezuela on the brink of default, unable to ship free oil to Cuba indefinitely, the Castro brothers were staring into the abyss.

    [I’ve had to edit parts of this post by Sal, however I’ve kept it mostly intact – JS]

  2. Is it not the case that at least part (if not all) of the reason we are at this point is because Venezuela has serious economic issues and is no longer able to provide the financial support through it’s Petrocaribe programme to Cuba and other Caribbean islands?

    Venezuela – yet another casualty of the oil pricing debacle.

    Would this have come about otherwise?

  3. Yes, I think it would have.

    Remember, the negotiations concerning this lasted somewhere between 18 months and two years – the economic problems of Venezuela, from the oil price drop, have been only about a month.

    As I noted, as early as late 2006 there was a move by the reformists led by Raul, and their ascendancy was more or less cemented by 2008.

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