Relations between Cuba and the United States have been tumultuous since Castro took control in January 1959 from the dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Fidel Castro and Fidelistas won a revolution and were determined to keep it at all costs. While the United States government was determined to do whatever was necessary – invasion, espionage, assassination attempts on high-ranking Cubans including Castro, subversion, embargos (except open immigration for refugees) and even pressing other nations not to trade with or invest in Cuba.
Foreign policy observers know that the U.S. has propped up dozens of brutal dictatorships in three continents at the same time the U.S. was trying to undermine Cuba. The U.S. opened diplomatic relations with China who fought us in the Korean War. We even have full relations with Vietnam despite our major bloody war with them. The ongoing animosity from the U.S. to achieve “regime change” in Cuba can be seen as bizarre, even given the anti-Cuban immigrant enclave in South Florida, when compared to the aforementioned foreign policies throughout the past half-century with China, Vietnam and other countries and regimes.
Last week, when President Obama, with the support of two-thirds of the American people, announced opening the door to diplomatic relations with Cuba (Congress will still have to authorize an embassy and an ambassador), this included loosening trade restrictions, easier access for tourist visas, and cooperating on health matters, climate disasters, and drug trafficking. Now, the prediction game has erupted in all directions in both countries as to what can, will and should happen regarding Cuba in the coming weeks, months and years.
Well, what we do know is that a Republican Congress will give President Obama very little slack, other than to help U.S. tractor manufacturers and U.S. agricultural exporters trade with Cuba. Annual trade with Cuba will soon go to $1 billion from under $400 million of mostly food exports last year. Trade with Vietnam, a much larger country, reached $30 billion last year!
In the future when relations have progressed to include all tourism and the Cuban infrastructure can support it, Cuba will become an attractive destination for millions of American tourists. Some U.S. hotels will get management contracts with the Cuban government, as some European and South American companies have already. Cubans will be able to receive more remittances from their relatives in the U.S. through credit cards.
The real questions about change, however, are from the Cuban side. What will be the reaction of the Castro brothers to U.S. politicians discussing the changes they believe will be best for Cuban politics, economics and culture? Will human rights and civil liberties expand?
The Castros are realists and futurists who are conscious of their ages and want to preserve the Cuban socialist revolution. The state currently controls 80% of the economy. Raul Castro has permitted a variety of small businesses (450,000 of them so far) and small private agricultural plots.
Still, the economy is in bad shape, notwithstanding universal free public education through the university level, universal health care, religious freedom and the ingenuity of Cubans in gaming the system with small-time black markets to get what they need.
Cubans have grown to rely on their remarkable ability to repair given their lack of imports due to embargos. The 1958 Chevrolet taxis I saw in Havana when David F. Binder and I joined a foreign press delegation to interview Castro in April 1959 are still on the streets of Havana today. Nonetheless, Cuba needs to significantly improve its infrastructure and expand the manufacturing of household goods.
It is not likely that Cubans can hold true to their principles in the face of an unimpeded flood of U.S. junk food, credit gouging, deceptive TV advertising, one-sided fine-print contracts, over promotion of drugs, commercialization of childhood with incessant and often violent programming and other forms of harmful corporate marketing.
Few societies can absorb the sensual seduction of Western corporate/commercial culture’s onslaught and not succumb to becoming a mimicking society. If it can happen to China – the Middle Kingdom – it can happen to any country.
President Obama promised last week to assist civil society in Cuba which made me wonder why he hasn’t assisted civil society – dominated by a two party tyranny and corporatism – in the U.S. Furthermore, given the history it may not be in the best interest of all Cubans for the “American imperialists” to assist their civil society.
The Castro brothers may be looking at Vietnam as a model. There the Communist Party is still strictly in charge, but there is a burgeoning “capitalist” economy expanding quite rapidly. In addition, Vietnam has seen the expansion of public corruption, pollution, profiteering, inequality, a painful generation gap and upheaval of cultural traditions.
One thing you can say about Castro’s Cuba, compared to Venezuela and many other South American regimes, is that there is not much big-time corruption. In fact, a corruption-ridden Venezuela that ships 100,000 barrels of oil a day to Cuba and is falling into deeper disarray is a reason why the Castros want more trade, tourism, and technical investment from the U.S and other countries.
Cuba exports physicians to many countries, often as a form of foreign aid. On the other hand, the U.S. imports physicians. Fidel Castro told us in 2002 that he was willing to collaborate with the U.S. in other countries to confront tropical diseases and epidemics using each country’s strengths. The U.S. government had no interest in his offer.
Now, with Cuban physicians going to West Africa in far greater numbers than our medical corps to deal with Ebola, the thawing of relations may produce more joint efforts in fighting or preventing such deadly epidemics.
Stay tuned to forthcoming events. Waging peace is a novel experience for hawkish U.S. foreign policy operatives and their provocative private consulting think tanks in Washington, D.C.