Cuba and the United States Return to the Trenches / Iván García

Propaganda billboard reads, “Messrs. Imperialists, we have absolutely no fear!” Source: Cartas desde Cuba

Iván García, 19 June 2017 — For both countries it amounts to a remake of the Cold War, this time in version 2.0. It will take time to determine the scope of the contest or if the new diplomatic battle will involve only bluffs, idle threats and blank bullets.

With an unpredictable buffoon like Donald Trump and a conspiratorial autocrat like Raul Castro, anything could happen.

The dispute between Cuba and the United States is like an old love story, one peppered with resentments, disagreements and open admiration for the latter’s opportunities and consumerist lifestyle.

Beginning in January 1959, the dispute between Havana and Washington took on an ideological tone when a bearded Fidel Castro opted for communism right under Uncle Sam’s nose. The country allied itself with the former Soviet Union and had the political audacity to confiscate the properties of U.S. companies and to aim nuclear weapons at Miami and New York.

Successive American administrations, from Eisenhower to George Bush Jr., responded with an embargo, international isolation and subversion in an attempt to overthrow the Castro dictatorship.

Times changed but objectives remained the same. Castro’s Cuba, ruled by a totalitarian regime which does not respect human rights and represses those who think differently, is not the kind of partner with which the White House likes to do business.

But the art of politics allows for double standards. For various reasons, Persian Gulf monarchies and Asian countries such as China and Vietnam — countries which have leap-frogged over democracy like Olympic athletes and are also heavy-handed in their use of power — are allies of the United States or have been granted most favored nation status by the U.S. Congress.

To the United States, Cuba — a capricious and arrogant dictatorship inflicting harm on universally held values — is different. Washington is correct in theory but not in its solution.

Fifty-five years of diplomatic, economic and financial warfare combined with a more or less subtle form of subversion, support for dissidents, the free flow of information, private businesses and an internet free of censorship have not produced results.

The communist regime is still in place. What to do? Remain politically blind and declare war on an impoverished neighbor or to try to coexist peacefully?

Washington’s biggest problem is that there is no effective mechanism for overturning dictatorial or hostile governments by remote control. The White House repeatedly shoots itself in the foot.

The embargo is more effective as a publicity tool for the Castro regime than it is for the United States. This is because the military junta, which controls 90% of the island’s economy, can still trade with the rest of the world.

The very global nature of modern economies limits the effectiveness of a total embargo. In the case of Cuba, the embargo has more holes in it than a block of Swiss cheese. Hard currency stores on the island sell “Made in the USA” household appliances, American cigarettes and the ubiquitous Coca Cola.

There are those who have advocated taking a hard line when it comes to the Cuban regime. In practice, their theories have not proved effective, though they would argue that Obama’s approach has not worked either.

They have a point. The nature of a dictatorship is such that it is not going to collapse when faced with a Trojan Horse. But as its leaders start to panic, doubts begin to set in among party officials as support grows among a large segment of the population. And what is most important for American interests is to win further approval from the international community for its geopolitical management.

Obama’s speech in Havana, in which he spoke of democratic values while directly addressing a group of wrinkled Caribbean strongmen, was more effective than a neutron bomb.

There are many Cubans who recognize that the root of their problems — from a disastrous economy to socialized poverty, daily shortages and a future without hope — lies in the Palace of the Revolution.

Hitting the dictatorship in its pocketbook has not worked. In Cuba, as Trump knows all too well, every business and corporation which deals in hard currency belongs to the government.

And all the money that comes into the country in the form of remittances ends up, in one form or another, in the state treasury. Sanctions only affect the people. I am convinced that, if Cuba’s autocrats lack for anything, it is more digits in their secret bank accounts.

Like other politicians and some members of Congress, Donald Trump is only looking at the Cuban landscape superficially.

The United States can spend millions to support Cuban dissidents (though 96% of the money goes to anti-Castro organizations based in Florida), launch international campaigns and impose million-dollar fines on various foreign banks to punish them for doing business with the Caribbean dictatorship, but they overlook one thing: the regime’s opponents — local figures who would presumably be leaders of any prolonged, peaceful battle for democracy on the island — are failing.

The reasons vary. They range from intense repression to the opposition’s proverbial inability to turn out even five-hundred people for a rally in a public square.

I understand the frustration of my compatriots in the diaspora. I too have suffered. I have not seen my mother, my sister or my niece in the fourteen years since the Black Spring in 2003 forced them to leave for Switzerland.

Various strategies have been tried yet the island’s autocrats still have not given up. They are not going to change of their own free will. They will retreat to the trenches, their natural habitat, where they can maneuver more easily. And they will have the perfect pretext for portraying themselves as victims.

As is already well known, the real blockade is the one the government imposes on its citizens through laws and regulations that hinder them from accumulating capital, accessing foreign sources of credit and importing goods legally.

The regime has created anachronistic obstacles to the free importation of goods from abroad by imposing absurd tariffs and restrictions.

But Cubans want a real democracy, not a caricature. We have to understand that we must find the solutions to our problems ourselves.

Cuba is a matter for Cubans, wherever they happen to reside. All that’s lacking is for we ourselves to believe it.