In Cuba, the Cold War Returns

While the political class bares its teeth and boasts of the holster on its belt, around the United States Embassy in there is nothing but long faces. (EFE)

Raúl Castro has not taken advantage of the steps taken by Barack Obama and has chosen to opt for caution rather than reform

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 13 November 2017 — It was too quiet to last. The diplomatic thaw between Cuba and the United States has failed and both nations are resetting their watches to the times of the Cold War. In recent weeks new causes of tension have arisen and political discourse returns to that customary belligerence so yearned for.

The link between the Plaza of the Revolution and the White House has taken several steps back from where it was on 17 December 2014, a date coined in Cuba as 17-D, when Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced the normalization of relations. This leap into the past is motivated by the alleged acoustic attacks – sounds that resemble the singing of dozens of crickets – that caused nausea, dizziness and headaches in United States diplomats stationed in Cuba.

The official propaganda machine had slowed down during the reconciliation period and now tries to resume the rhythm that characterized it in the days of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush. However, we can see the fatigue and in particular the apathy of a national audience more attuned to daily survival than to diplomatic squabbles.

Cartoons lambasting the US president have also returned to the pages of government newspapers, while the concept of anti-imperialism takes center stage in the agendas of government institutions, unable to articulate a less ideological discourse. These are good times for recalcitrants, opportunists and radicals.

Lacking their favorite target, the regime’s spokespeople had found themselves lost among so many hugs, conciliatory photos and delegations of American businessmen who came to the Island. Unable to deal with the calm, now they can fill their lungs with the air of storm. Only confrontation makes them important, only combat seems alive to them.

While the political class bares its teeth and boasts of the holster on its belt, outside the United States Embassy in Havana long faces abound. Every morning dozens of Cubans arrive in the neighborhood, distressed by being stranded in the middle of an immigration process due to the suspension of consular work at the embassy. Small businesses in the area that thrived on selling coffee, renting rooms to visa applicants traveling from elsewhere in Cuba, or helping people to fill out immigration forms, have descended into sudden bankruptcy. Uncle Sam stimulated the economy of thousands of families near the perimeter of the imposing building and now everything is on hold, impregnated with uncertainty.

The neighbors can only remind themselves of the image of August 2015 when US Secretary of State John Kerry participated in raising the American flag in the recently inaugurated US Embassy in Havana. It was “the best time in this area and the country,” says Paquito, a neighbor who made a living offering a consignment service for bags and cell phones to visa applicants. Today his room is empty and his greatest wish is that “the yumas,” the Americans, “will return as soon as possible”.

Throughout the country many fear that Donald Trump’s measures will go further and end up affecting the flow of regular flights between the Island and its northern neighbor, flights restored during the past administration. A cutback in the sending of remittances also populates the nightmares of countless families who survive thanks to the help that comes every month from el Norte.

Those who predict a worsening of relationships are right. The withdrawal of non-essential personnel after the acoustic attacks is just one more episode in a soap opera punctuated with hatreds and passions, bickering and wrangling that have dominated both countries for more than half a century.

The new episode has only added a new measure of mystery, spy stories and sophisticated aggressions to what was already the typical script of this “avoidance/approach” conflict, where the object of desire is both rejected and hazily desired.

The terrain for belligerency is fertile, and on such a fecund base sprout the most varied speculations about the perpetrators of the attacks allegedly suffered by the diplomats.

Supporters of the thaw point to an orthodox group within the Cuban government who saw the pact with the United States as a betrayal. A “Taliban” brotherhood well enough placed in the spheres of power to be able to undertake an action of such complexity.

Others speculate that a third country, such as Russia, Iran or North Korea, used Cuban territory to perpetrate an attack on its old rival. In that case, the island would have been merely the scene of a struggle of external powers with national intelligence not even aware of it. The latter is very unlikely in a country where surveillance has escalated to degrees of oppressive sophistication and intensity.

There are also those who point to Fidel Castro as the evil genius behind the acoustic attack plot. The only man with more power than Raúl Castro who would have been capable of organizing something of that nature emerges amid the speculations of those who remember his incalculable capacity to annoy Washington.

Those who hold the hypothesis of the “poisoned will” of the Comandante say that the mysterious noises began before his death last November and also remember how he distanced himself from the diplomatic thaw. The eternal anti-imperialist must have liked nothing about his brother’s flirtations with the tenant of the White House, say those who support this conjecture.

The official press points out that the acoustic attacks have been just the pretext for Trump to implement a policy towards Cuba more aligned with those segments of the diaspora discontented with the thaw, as it downplays what happened and sows doubt that such aggressions even existed. However, it reiterates that the Government is willing to cooperate with the investigation.

The big loser in all these events is Raúl Castro. The main legacy of his mandate rested precisely on having achieved a rapprochement between both nations. Through the thaw, the youngest of the brothers made his own mark and stepped away from the shadow of the Comandante en Jefe, a contumacious agitator of the conflict between the Island’s David and the American Goliath.

The general, who until now has been unable to fulfill many of the promises of his mandate – such as monetary reunification, in a country fractured by the duality between the convertible peso and the Cuban peso – or returning to wages their lost dignity, sees how his government’s legacy is vanishing.

Diplomatic normalization is, without a doubt, a story of the failure of the second Castro, who did not take advantage of the steps taken by Barack Obama, preferring to opt for caution instead of reform. If he is not directly responsible for the acoustic attacks, then he is responsible for the negligence that allowed others to carry them out and for not having been able to prevent this incident from resulting in the current diplomatic confrontation.

In the end, the era of extended hands is over and the island is in the midst of an economic recession, suffering the effects of a powerful hurricane, facing diminished support from Venezuela, while the so-called”historic generation” is on the verge of biological obsolescence. The Cold War has returned, but the Cuba of those years no longer exists.


Editor’s Note: This text has been previously published by the Spanish newspaper El País in its edition of Sunday, November 12.