US-Cuba Relations: A Passing Idyll? / 14ymedio, Andres Oppenheimer

First meeting between Raul Castro and Barack Obama at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in South Africa
First meeting between Raul Castro and Barack Obama at the funeral of Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

14ymedio, Andres Oppenheimer, 28 January 2016 – There is a lot of excitement on all sides about president Barack Obama’s approach to Cuba, but allow me a word of caution: it is likely that the current idyll between Washington and Havana will cool somewhat after the November elections in the United States, regardless of who wins.

The reason is very simple: it takes two to tango (or cha-cha, in this case) and Cuba is doing little from its side to accompany the easing of U.S. trade relations against the island.

In addition, the next United States president will see the trade opening to Cuba as a legacy of Obama, and will likely not spend much political capital to continue unilaterally expanding a policy that will go down in history as the work of a previous president.

When Obama first announced the opening to Cuba on 17 December 2014, he said, rightfully, that the previous policy of the United States had failed, and that United States trade would help to create a new class of entrepreneurs and an independent civil society in Cuba.

But more than a year later, even the State Department officials who negotiatied the agreement are frustrated with Cuba.

Earlier this month, the official Cuban weekly Workers reported that the number of self-employed workers in Cuba has fallen to 496,000, from 504,000 six months ago, according to Cubaencuentro’s 12 January webpage.

The blog Letters From Cuba, by the Uruguayan journalist Fernando Ravsberg, said on 17 December that “internally, the paralysis is great.” He added that “during 2015 not one more cooperative was legalized, no new forms of self-employment were opened up, the wholesale markets were conspicuous by their absence and the long demanded unification of the currencies is still on the shelf.”

Politically, the military dictatorship in Cuba continues to ban political parties, freedom of assembly, and independent media.

During the past year, the number of arrests of peaceful dissidents rose to a record of 1,447 in November, according to the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation.

Yoani Sánchez, the brave Cuban journalist publishes her digital daily 14ymedio from abroad because the regime does not allow her to publish it from Cuba, even online, wrote on January 6 that “Television, radio and newspapers are maintained under strict monopoly of the Communist Party.”

And she added, “Access to the microphone is granted only to those who agree with the government and applaud the actions of its leaders. They never interview someone with a difference of opinion.”

Despite all this, Obama announced a few days ago a third round of unilateral measures to ease the embargo on the island. The new measures will allow more American visitors to travel to Cuba and increase the number of authorized exports to the island.

The normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba has turned the island into a global object of curiosity. Tourism to Cuba increased to 3.5 million in 2015, up 17.4% over the previous year, according to official Cuban figures.

Cuban art, cuisine and music have become fashionable, and are the subject of countless newspaper articles. In contrast, few journalists report on the political prisoners or investigate the more than 3,130 killings attributed to the Castro regime since 1959, according to the records compiled by the research group

My opinion: As I have said in earlier columns, the previous United States policy of isolating Cuba did not work and Obama’s new measures deserve a chance. However, so far they have not worked.

At this point, the normalization of relations has only helped Obama to cement his legacy as the president who resumed relations with Cuba, as Nixon did with China. So Obama pressed the accelerator with new measures of additional openings a few days ago, and will continue to do so.

But I do not think the next president of the United States – even if it is Hillary Clinton – will invest much political capital in cementing Obama’s legacy, unless Cuba gives concrete signs of an economic or political opening. The ball is in the Cuban court, and this idyll can cool off after November.

14ymedio Editorial Note: This analysis has been previously published in El Nuevo Herald. It is reproduced with the permission of the author.