Cuba and the United States, a Return to Politics / Dimas Castellanos

Dimas Castellanos, 16 April 2015 — On December 17, 2014 the presidents of Cuban and the United States announced their decision to reestablish diplomatic relations. It was the single most important political event for Cuba in the last half century.

The Revolutionaries who took power in 1959 replaced the existing constitution with a few statutes. The designated prime minister assumed the office of head-of-government and the Council of Ministers replaced the Cuban congress. The promise to hold elections was never fulfilled, political power was amassed by the supreme leader, private property passed to the state and institutions were dismantled.

In response to Cuba’s nationalization of American property in Cuba, the government of the United States broke off diplomatic relations and initiated a policy of confrontation that has been maintained by every U.S. administration from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama.

As external conflicts tended to suppress internal conflicts, the Cuban government used the disagreement to paralyze society, covering up its own failures and avoiding any commitment to human rights. However, it turned out that its skill at holding on to power was not applicable to the economy.

Upon being named President of the Council of State in 2008, Raul Castro proposed a basic reform plan. However, the 2012 Cuban Communist Party Conference reaffirmed Fidel Castro’s previous policy. In 1961 Fidel had posed a question at the Congress of Culture by asking “What are the rights of revolutionary and non-revolutionary writers and authors.” He responded by saying, “Within the Revolution, everything. Against the Revolution, nothing.” There would be no legal exception for artists or writers. In general this has been the case for all citizens as well.

The reforms were late in coming, limited and contradictory, and thus did not produce the expected results. Low salaries, widespread corruption, popular discontent and a growing exodus have been exacerbated by the impending loss of Venezuelan financial support. Nevertheless, the reforms did away with the conditions that made the regime’s resistance to change possible. In the absence of an independent civil society, a silent consensus for change has been emerging.

The failure of Fidel’s policies and of the embargo are part of a classic pattern in which conflicts first lead to war, then to great losses in human lives and material resources, and finally to the negotiating table.

Although the Cuban government’s intent was to force the United States to lift the embargo without the regime agreeing to democratize the country, U.S. actions simply ignore this fact. Obama did not demand a return to democracy as a pre-condition for restoring diplomatic relations. But measures intended to encourage citizen empowerment such as easing travel restrictions, raising the limit on hard currency remittances and providing greater access to telecommunications have placed the issue front and center in the minds of his own people and the international community.

These measures suggest the gradual empowerment of individual Cubans and the reemergence of civil society. Such an outcome would benefit U.S. interests and provide a “face-saving” way out for the Cuban government. In spite of its inherent contradictions the recently concluded seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama pointed in this direction.

The peculiarity of the process is rooted in the absence of an alternative political force with the ability to influence change internally. The driving force behind these reforms is the same one that has held power since 1959. It has been responsible for everything that has occurred in the last half century and has interests to protect. It has determined that the scope, direction and pace of change shall be subordinate to what political scientist Juan Linz describes as post-totalitarianism. In other words, an abiding desire for totalitarianism without the means to achieve it.

Ultimately, neither the process of reform nor the reestablishment of relations with the United States can be stopped. The government can slow them down but it cannot avoid them, even if they lead to new measures that restore Cubans’ status as citizens.

Published on Opinion page of the newspaper El Comercio, Lima, Peru, April 16, 2015