Cuba Calling

By Christian Scheinpflug

This post has been published elsewhere in a slightly different version on June 27, 2017.

For Cuba history repeats as a farce. Donald Trump the showman, announced a complete ‘roll back’ of US-Cuba rapprochement in an event staged as a fever dream of American exceptionalism in Miami. Participants of the play offered the usual platitudes of freedom and liberty, with Senator Marco Rubio as representative of Cuban exiles (and target of Trumpian vile during last year’s election campaign), promising the United States would never empower the ‘oppressors’ in Havana. The crowd went crazy.

Though bursting with pathos already, Mr Trump then just added more by commending the exiles for standing up to Cuba’s dictatorship. This much pathos went down well with a little hypocrisy, as the crowd cheered when Mr Trump was vowing to never allow ‘communist oppression,’ but his affinity for Communist mass murderer Kim Jong-un barely raised an eyebrow. Mr Trump’s esteem for génocidaires in the Philippines, Turkey, and Russia raise the level of hypocrisy even higher.

As custom with Trumpism, lack of substance is hidden under thick emotions, turning foreign policy into a hostage of the Cuban exile community. The new course will keep the embassies open and travelling somehow allowed, albeit more restrictively and in groups only. These measures have been sold as a blow to the Cuban military, which engages more openly — certainly less profitable — than the US military in the economy. But since the Cuban forces’ engagement also creates employment, the policy change may well result in job losses and thus more poverty. Crucially, ’wet foot, dry foot’ won’t come back either. This scheme constituted a powerful instrument to support Cuban’s fed up with the Castro’s, as it allowed refugees that arrived at the shores of Florida easy access to US visas. It’s hard to see how Mr Trump will thus deliver the ‘better deal for the Cuban people’ he promised.

The Cuban government initially responded diplomatically yet unyielding via party organ, Granma. It called the policy change regressive and lamented the constraints on cultural exchange and business. And although the piece called out the US-based ‘extremist minority,’ Havana struck a conciliatory tone, building a counterpoint to the extravaganza in Miami. Cuba’s politburo addressed the 75 % of US citizens that favour rapprochement and vowed to keep striving toward friendly relations on all levels. This insinuates, somewhat comically, that the Cuban politburo could have a better idea about the wants of ‘the American people.’ The Cuban government lamented furthermore Mr Trump’s equating the Cuban people with the Cuban military. This signals that Havana seems genuinely concerned to keep both realms apart, otherwise it would just have mimicked the US approach and glorified the bond between ‘the people’ and ‘our troops.’

The Granma piece even mentioned essential socio-economic reforms. Though largely ignored by the international media, this is significant as it displays a reason for the politburo’s ability to hold onto power: Contrary to the GDR’s gerontocracy, which uttered ‘change’ only once terminal demise set in, Cuban communists seem not necessarily to fear the arrival of capitalism. They just want to mould it on their terms, hence the repeated insistence on ‘sovereignty.’ And who could blame them after Chicago Boys-invented shock therapy ravaged societies throughout Latin America in the 1970s, devastating also East Europe and Russia in the 1990s? No conscientious leader would want to invite such catastrophe.

Past events, however, must not cloud present thinking. Proponents of the new Cuba policy portray the change as a ’smart move,’ ignoring that Mr Trump isn’t a smart politician (he doesn’t get the importance of his daily intel briefings); he’s a conman. Critics of the policy reversal, on the other hand, point out that 60 years of the old embargo failed and so will the new one. But this is not the Cold War-order anymore. In this context, success or failure of a US policy become less relevant than impact.

Washington, while retaining much clout, won’t wield as much influence as it did, a result partly of its own making. Nor is China as economically impotent or Russia as timid as they once had been. Indeed, Moscow quickly solidarised with Cuba, which looks like part of a bold strategy to make inroads into Latin America, considering trade deals with Colombia and strengthening the bond with Chile. China, too, has courted Chile as a springboard into the region, and vigorous investment policy in Argentina together with the canny move to determine Panama’s Asia policy prove that Beijing is jumping in. Rather sooner than later both China and Russia will tap into the Cuban tourist industry, invest in its agriculture to secure food resources, and utilise Havana’s political leverage.

Latin American leaders, too, should seize the moment and intensify relations with Cuba as long as the US remains stuck in yesteryear’s rhetoric and populism. After all, tragic farce contains historic opportunity as well.

Christian is a columnist at Chile Today. He’s also director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI) and co-editor of E-IR’s book on International Relations Theory. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrScheinpflug

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