The Importance of Obama’s Visit / Dimas Castellano

A man in an Obama shirt on Havana's Malecon
A man in an Obama shirt on Havana’s Malecon (Reuters, Havana)

Dimas Castellanos, 18 March 2016 — The damage done to US economic interests by the 1959 Revolution led to the deterioration of relations between the two countries. In the midst of the Cold War, disagreements led to a rupture in relations and Cuba’s alliance with the Soviet Union. In this context the Cuban government, in defense of its national “sovereignty”, nationalized the economy, dismantled civil society, restricted freedoms, and took the road towards totalitarianism.

The economic inefficiency of the model introduced was patched up by Soviet subsidies until the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe unveiled the mirage and sunk Cuba into a crisis – dubbed with with the euphemism of “Special Period in Time of Peace” – that has still not been overcome. From that point forward the changes introduced, including the reforms initiated in 2008, have failed. Shortages, high prices, low wages, discontent, corruption and the exodus characterized a crisis exacerbated by the turmoil facing Hugo Chávez’s allied regime in Venezuela, and the end of subsidies from that country.

Meanwhile, the ten presidential administrations that have occupied the White House since then, from  Eisenhower to Bush, all failed in their attempts to bring about change in Cuba, losing influence in the region. The Obama Administration, from his first term in 2009, began to relax the embargo measures, and in his second term abandoned the failed policy and implemented new measures, including the latest on the eve of his visit, which practically constitute those previous policies’ death certificate, to be ratified by the US Congress sooner than later.

As the use of force has failed, and the approach based on winners and losers has come to an end, a return to politics has been embraced. Unable to find a new sponsor, the Government of Cuba took the road of rapprochement with the United States, while President Barack Obama, with a platform that ruled out being the direct agent of change on the island, chose the most effective path to collaborate towards the democratization of Cuba. Both sides, based on a dose of political realism, held secret talks that led to the restoration of diplomatic relations, one of whose effects is President Obama’s visit to Cuba.

These developments, regardless of their interpretation, have certainly given rise to hope in what has been a dejected and demoralized country, where people are struggling just to survive, or to flee anywhere else in the world.

The visit, in addition to being the first to Cuba of an official character by an American president (that by Calvin Coolidge in 1928 was to inaugurate the 6th Pan American Conference in Havana) is of enormous significance. Representing the effect of the restoration of diplomatic relations, preceded by concrete measures and public statements in the defense of human rights, it will also further the same because:

1- It backs up the statement issued by the White House which stated that it “will serve to reinforce the progress made towards the normalization of relations between the two countries, advancing commercial and personal ties that could improve the welfare of the Cuban people and express our support for human rights.”

2- It represents a major barricade to regressing to the period prior to 17 December 2014.

3- It places those reactionary Cubans who insist on speaking of the “enemy” and “the besieged plaza” in an awkward position, exposed to the entire world.

4- It contributes to Cubans’ gradual empowerment, a favorable outcome for both governments, and especially for the Cuban people.

If we add to this that the United States – separated by less than 100 miles from Cuba – is the world’s third largest in area, and with the third biggest economy, it is not difficult to appreciate what normalization will mean for Cubans.

What happens after the visit will be the sole responsibility of Cubans, of our understanding of the moment, and our ability to act on a stage in which disagreements between the two governments will be gradually displaced by the internal tension between the Cuban people and their government.

Out of pragmatism and responsibility, the problems that have accumulated, which are many and complex, require an approach in accordance with the changing times. With the “enemy” gone, and Cuba dependent on relations with the West, it will be extremely difficult to sustain the approach based on alleged differences in conceptions of human rights, in this way justifying their non-ratification of the universal agreements on civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights.

Harder still will be defending the fallacy contained in the editorial of the newspaper Granma last March 9, contending that “Cuba defends the indivisibility, interdependence and universality of human, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights,” as the recognition of any civil, political or cultural rights is utterly undermined by the simultaneous denial of economic and social rights. In the same way, it is impossible to exercise and enjoy economic and social rights in the absence of civil and political rights.

Despite the existence of strong internal and external obstacles, the strong legacy of human rights in Cuba shows us the path to take – one that began in 1878 with the emergence of Cuban civil society, reflected in the pro-independence and republican constitutions of 1901 and 1940, which in many respects portended the content of the Universal Declaration of Human rights of 1948, and which suffered an unacceptable setback under the current Constitution, which only recognizes the right to defend the totalitarian system that mired the country in the deep structural crisis in which it finds itself.

From Diario de Cuba