Washington-Havana Rapprochement: An Unlikely Victory for Cuba

© Sputnik / Alexandr SolovskyRevolution Square in Havana, Cuba
Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba - Sputnik International
The announcement by the Obama administration in the United States of the re-opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba shows that the contest between the irresistible force and the immovable obstacle has been won by the latter.

LONDON, December 20 (Sputnik) — The restoration of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States has provoked enormous interest.

This is in no way surprising. Since the rupture in diplomatic relations in 1961 the United States and Cuba have been the most consistent adversaries on the international stage. 

In that period relations between the United States and other countries with which it has had adversarial relationships such as Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Iraq or Vietnam, have gone through ups and downs. This has not been true of relations between the United States and Cuba. Relations between them have always been bad. 

This hostility between the United States and Cuba has been one of the most stable factors in international relations over the last half-century. Though its effect in Europe and elsewhere is mitigated by distance, this hostility has had an enormous influence in shaping the present political geography of Latin America especially. 

The possibility that this hostility may change has therefore come to many people as a surprise if only because the general expectation was that there would be no significant improvement in relations between the two countries at least until the two Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, had died.

What explains this enduring hostility and this abrupt shift in relations? Will it endure or is it as many appear to think a trap the United States has laid for Cuba preparing the grounds for regime change there?

The breakdown in relations between the United States and Cuba was the consequence of the Castro Revolution of 1959. This was a revolution launched from the countryside against a corrupt oligarchic elite based in Havana. 

That elite in turn had extremely close connections with the United States. These extended back decades to Cuba's liberation war against Spain in the 1890s. The United States intervened in that war in a manner that achieved for it a dominant position in Cuba right up to the point of Castro's revolution in 1959. It would not be an exaggeration to say that throughout this period Cuba was essentially a protectorate of the United States. 

It should be clarified that this was a relationship that differed significantly from the one the United States has with nearly all other Latin American countries. The United States has been the dominant political influence — in effect the not so silent partner — in the political system of every Latin American state for most of the last century. However in no other Latin American state or country, save Panama and Puerto Rico, has US political engagement been so direct and open as it was in Cuba.

This form of US domination had important practical significance. Not only did the United States acquire a major military base at Guantánamo Bay (which it retains still) but it achieved total domination of Cuba's economy and political system in a way that made both in effect appendages of the economy and political system of the United States.

As is well-known Cuba gradually evolved into an important playground for the American rich and not so rich. From the 1920s to the 1950s Havana became a US holiday and gambling center to rival Miami and later Las Vegas. Moreover, many wealthy Americans had second homes there. These included the writer Ernest Hemingway and the wealthy Dupont family whose former villa Xanadu was one of the inspirations for the palace of that name in the Orson Welles film Citizen Kane. It remains a landmark in the holiday resort of Varadero to this day. 

This was the period when the Tropicana nightclub in Havana achieved its heyday, when the Capitolio building in Havana was built in direct imitation of the Capitol in Washington, when the US Hershey chocolate company built an electric railway to service its sugar plantations and when Havana became a byword for tropical hedonism and vice.

This US political and economic control went together with considerable corruption. Its status as a protectorate was incompatible with democracy and at no time before the Castro Revolution in 1959 was Cuba in any true sense one. At the time of the Revolution Cuba was actually a dictatorship led by a former staff Sergeant Fulgencio Batista.  Behind the facade of a dictatorship the true power in Cuba actually rested, as it had always done, in an oligarchy of wealthy families (some tracing their origins back to the period of Spanish rule), the military, the US embassy and US businessmen, several of whom were well known gangsters. The two key figures amongst the latter were the mobsters Meyer Lansky and Santos Trafficante, with the former often regarded as the true ruler of Cuba during this period.

The immediate pre-revolution period in Cuba was one of chronic impoverishment and neglect of the Cuban countryside combined with a frenetic construction boom in Havana itself. This period when the Tropicana nightclub in Havana achieved its heyday and when Havana became a byword for tropical hedonism and prostitution was also a period of growing inequality and of social unrest.  In fairness it was also a time of considerable cultural achievement, of the emergence in Havana of a substantial middle class and of the construction of a highway system of a sort unknown at this time in other Latin American states.

These intense connections between Cuba and the United States explain much about the subsequent period of protracted hostility. 

For the Cubans many of their societal problems became explicable by reference to their subordinate position to the United States, which to a proud people was humiliating and exploitative. The Castro Revolution was in a sense Cuba's declaration of independence from the United States. 

As for the United States, it has never regarded with favor any progressive social or democratic change in any part of Latin America especially when this threatens its overall economic or political dominance in the region as in its perception it invariably does. However, its intense relationship with Cuba exacerbated US hostility even more than was the case in other Latin American states. In a very real sense the US had come to regard Cuba as an informal though exotic part of the United States itself, making Cubas break with the United States not just politically and economically, but also psychologically intolerable.

The consequence has been five decades of struggle by the United States to bring Cuba back under its control. This has involved an economic blockade and unrelenting attempts to destabilize and overthrow the Cuban government.  On occasion this had had its farcical aspects such as the plot to murder Fidel Castro with an exploding seashell or the recent attempt to recruit Cuban hip-hop artists in a plot to overthrow the government. This should not however detract from the enormous material and psychological damage done to Cuba.

The US economic and political war against Cuba has been further extended by the powerful vested interests in its perpetuation. Anti-Castro groups managed to achieve political control of the Cuban community in the United States in the 1960s and the perpetuation of the USs undeclared war against Cuba served both to cement their control of that community and their political influence within the United States.  Allied to various political and economic groups in the United States that were also opposed to reconciliation for ideological, economic or political reasons, they formed a powerful political lobby resisting any rapprochement between the two countries. 

However, the conflict between Cuba and the United States also serves as a case of an irresistible force meeting an immovable obstacle. 

Precisely because the Cuban revolution was in a sense Cuba's declaration of independence from the United States, US political pressure upon Cuba in the end served to consolidate support for the Cuban government rather than undermine it. 

It is important, nonetheless, to say that in any contest between the United States and Cuba, because of the overwhelming preponderance of force in the United States' favor, on any objective assessment, the United States should have prevailed.  That it did not do so is entirely due to the support Cuba received from the USSR during the Cold War. Had this support not been provided in the crucial first decades of the Cuban revolution, that revolution would not have survived and Cuba would have quickly reverted to its previous subordinate position to the United States.  By the time Soviet support fell away in the 1990s, the Cuban government had become sufficiently consolidated to survive without it.  That this was so came as a surprise to the United States which, consistently underestimating the level of support in Cuba for the revolutionary government, in the 1990s anticipated its swift collapse.

The Soviet alliance was not, however, the reason for US hostility towards Cuba. Rather it was its result.

In the first decade of the Cuban revolution relations between Cuba and the USSR were often tense. This was the Castro revolutions period of revolutionary romanticism.  The Cubans throughout this period sought to extend their revolution to the rest of Latin America. The Soviets were strongly opposed and in the end prevailed though not without repeated quarrels with the Cubans along the way.

Much of the literature that has been written which is sympathetic to the Cubans and to Fidel Castro and Fidel Castro in many of his own writings, sides with the Cubans in these quarrels. In reality Soviet determination to restrain Cuba's revolutionary adventures in Latin America was entirely justified.  Though it may appear counterintuitive, the Soviets were in fact far better informed of the true situation in Latin America in the 1960s than the Cubans were.  The Soviets had long-standing political links in South America through the various Communist parties there (all of which were loyal to Moscow) and were aware of something Castro has never accepted, which was that in the 1960s in Latin America a revolutionary situation such as the one that had existed in Cuba did not exist.  Had the Cubans been allowed by Moscow to export their revolution to Latin America the attempt would unquestionably have ended in catastrophic failure, which would have threatened the survival of the Cuban revolution itself. 

Though Latin America remains Fidel Castros enduring obsession, Cuba's revolutionary energies in the 1970s were redirected much more successfully to Africa.  Here Cuba's interventions in the Angolan War of Independence and the Civil War which followed it and its support for the South African anti-apartheid struggle played a critical though often unrecognized role in the final defeat of apartheid.  Though both the facts of the battle and its political consequences remain fiercely contested, the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola in 1987-8 between the Cuban army and the South Africans, is widely considered in South Africa itself as the key event that finally forced the apartheid regime in South Africa to negotiate its eventual dissolution.  These Cuban interventions in Africa would of course have been impossible without Soviet support.

The announcement by the Obama administration in the United States of the re-opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba shows that the contest between the irresistible force and the immovable obstacle has been won by the latter. 

It is clear from the White House announcement that Cuba has made no concessions of any significance to the United States in return for the US decision to re-open diplomatic relations. As the White House announcement itself admits, it is the United States which instead has been obliged to admit that its previous policy pursued unrelentingly for 54 years was wrong. This is an almost unique case of the United States officially admitting error and changing its policy.

What has brought about this change?

The answer to this question is in part answered by the better question of why, if the policy was so wrong, has it taken so long to change it?  Even allowing for the special factors discussed here persisting with a wrong policy for 54 years is nothing short of astonishing. It illustrates the profoundly dysfunctional nature of the US decision-making process, where changing even the most obviously unsuccessful policy is extraordinarily difficult.  It is this dysfunctional nature of the US political system and decision-making process which, more than any other factor, causes such immense problems for other countries that have to deal with the United States whilst trying to preserve an independent course.

Firstly, as the White House statement makes clear, there has been no fundamental rethink of US foreign policy, something of which the United States remains for the moment incapable. The White House statement shows that the United States remains as committed to its hegemonic course as ever and is still committed to achieving regime change in Cuba. 

The answer for the change in policy in fact lies in internal US political considerations.

An unpopular US president seeking to shore up support within his liberal political base and to reach out to the black and Hispanic communities in the United States whose votes will be crucial in the next presidential election, has taken the easy step of ending a diplomatic stand-off with Cuba that gave the United States no political dividends.  As a president in the last two years of his presidency the political cost of taking this step is slight.  By contrast, the political gains for the Democrats in shoring up support amongst American liberals, Hispanics and blacks in what is likely to be a difficult election in 2016 are substantial.  Though hostility to Cuba in Washington has been overwhelming, attitudes towards Cuba amongst the groups whose electoral support the Democrats need is different.  Many US liberals have over time been won over by the romantic image of the Cuban revolution, whilst amongst blacks and Hispanics (the latter especially a key demographic) sympathy and on occasion even a degree of self-identification with Cuba are strong. 

Even amongst Cuban-Americans attitudes towards the Cuban government have gradually softened as the older militantly anti-Castro generation has passed away. Significantly, one of the steps taken by the Obama administration, along with the opening of diplomatic relations, is the lifting of the ban on the use of US credit cards in Cuba and the easing of restrictions on remittances to Cuba. These are steps with obvious appeal to the many Cuban-Americans who continue to have family connections in Cuba and who wish to travel to Cuba and to support their families there.

The fact that the Republicans are likely to oppose all of these measures and will most probably seek to block attempts in Congress to lift the economic embargo actually works in favor of Obama's objective.  It enables him and the Democrats to draw dividing lines with the Republicans on this issue in a way that is likely to appeal to liberal, black and Hispanic voters.  It means that Cuban voters in the key swing state of Florida in particular now have a strong reason to vote for the Democrats against a Republican candidate whom the Democrats will try to paint as aiming to reverse the monetary and travel concessions Obama has afforded.

It may come as a surprise to many that the explanation for the change in US policy towards Cuba lies in US domestic politics.  The US political system is, however, organized in such a way that domestic political considerations invariably trump all others.  There is a clear and obvious political benefit for Obama and the Democrats in improving relations with Cuba. There is at present no such benefit in improving relations with Russia and Iran, or in pursuing a more evenhanded policy in relation to the Arab-Israeli conflict. On the contrary, any attempt to change US policies in these areas instantly runs into powerful opposition from entrenched electoral lobbies, which is why such attempts are never sustained for very long.  It is precisely because of the disproportionate influence of such lobbies in the US political system that voting in Congress on issues that concern such lobbies tends to be so lopsided.  This explains the overwhelming majorities in Congress in votes that relate to issues that concern Russia, Israel, or Iran.  When these lobbies are strong neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have any political interest in standing up to them, which is why the overwhelming majority of them never do.  It is only when the electoral influence of a lobby wanes that the political calculus changes allowing the policy to change.

The change in US policy towards Cuba is a symptom of the decline in influence of the anti-Castro Cuban lobby and a sign that the political benefits of continued appeasement are now outweighed by the political advantages of standing up to it. That is the entire explanation both for the change of policy, as well as for being one of the reasons why it has taken so long.

The abrupt shift of US policy towards Cuba had been received in some quarters with some alarm.  There is an abundance of commentary that sees this change of policy as a trap for Cuba and for the Cuban leadership.  Supposedly the USs objective in restarting diplomatic relations is so that it can open an embassy in Havana to plot a counterrevolution there.

It should be clarified that these fears have no basis. The United States has been attempting to foment a counterrevolution in Cuba for 54 years. It broadcasts propaganda to Cuba round the clock. It has an interests section in Havana which operates like an embassy.  It has had no difficulty planting agents in Cuba or sending money to support them there.  There is no doubt that the United States will continue with these efforts.  However, merely reopening the embassy in Havana will not make that task any easier than it is already.  If the purpose of opening an embassy in Havana is to overthrow the Cuban government then the United States would have done it long ago.

As for the Cuban government, it would have made absolutely no sense for them to refuse a US offer to reopen diplomatic relations when this has been what they have been demanding ever since the United States broke off those relations in January 1961.  The same is true of the embargo if and when it is eventually lifted.  It would be simply perverse for the Cuban government to reject such a step when they have been demanding it ever since the Kennedy administration first imposed the embargo upon them five decades ago.  Were the Cuban government to behave in such a bizarre way that would do far more damage to its political standing in Cuba than anything planned or attempted by the United States.

It bears repeating that in this conflict of wills between Cuba and the United States it is Cuba which has unequivocally won. The Cubans have made no concessions to the United States on any significant issue. All the concessions have been made by the United States.  Those who consider themselves Cuba's friends should rejoice in its victory and not seek to cast doubt on it or look for evidence of betrayal when there is none.  To the extent that the USSR through its support for Cuba in the past played a key role in helping Cuba to achieve this victory, Russian friends of Cuba can take special pride in it.

Cuba since the revolution has remarkable achievements to its credit.  Claims about the excellence of the Cuban health and educational systems are true. Conditions in the Cuban countryside have been transformed.  Cuba is a far more equal, immeasurably better educated and healthier society than it was in the 1950s. It remains culturally brilliant and is physically safe in a way that cannot be said for any other society in the Americas.  Cuba also played a key role in the toppling in South Africa of the apartheid system that had existed there.

To acknowledge the achievements of the Cuban people in most adverse conditions is not however to idealize the situation in Cuba today.  Material conditions of life remain difficult. Though the Cuban revolution never resorted to mass repressions or political terror and the human rights situation in Cuba actually compares very favorably with that of many other Latin American countries such as Colombia and Mexico that the West classifies as democracies, it is delusional to think that the political system in Cuba is entirely free or politically open.  Visitors to Cuba speak of the frustration felt especially by young people at the limits placed on their lives as well as of continuing support despite all the difficulties for the revolution and its government.

The way forward for Cuba will be difficult. The threat from the United States has not gone away. Those who sympathize with the Cuban people should support them in their continuing struggle for a better life that will be built on the achievements of their revolution. That they have achieved such a remarkable victory against all odds in five decades of struggle is remarkable and offers the promise of greater achievements in the future now that because of their victory the pressures upon them may finally start to ease.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the official position of Sputnik.


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