President Donald Trump’s message to the Cuban public using the anniversary of May 20 expresses his administration’s lack of creativity and improvisation regarding the island. In an act of supreme irony, some official muttered on behalf of the White House four phrases about human rights for Cuba while the U.S. president was traveling to kiss the rings of the Saudi monarchy in the heart of the Middle East. Women there are forbidden to drive cars.
The short message serves to postpone the announced reassessment of the Cuba policy in line with the scarce allusions to the island and the very little priority given to bilateral relations in the months after the presidential inauguration.
Each day that goes by reinforces the vision of a new post-Obama normalcy in Cuba-U.S. relations. A substantial part of the changes made by the Obama-John Kerry team arrived to stay. Compared to what occurred in times of the Bush administration, the pro-isolation and hostility toward Cuba lobby lawmakers have not dared to ask for a restoration of the travel restrictions. It must be recalled that in their discourse, especially of Senator Marco Rubio, the control of trips had to start by restricting the Cuban American community, since only thus would there be the long-term moral force to demand the travel ban for the other U.S. citizens.
The trips and remittances of the Cuban Americans continue being the nucleus of the economic and social contacts between Cuban and U.S. societies. Today, the amount of those trips has reached a critical mass. Those travelers’ calm behavior in the Miami airport, carrying TV sets and enormous packages to the country that supposedly that community asks that it be blockaded, expressed the defeat of the pro-embargo right in its fundamental bastion. That’s where they have their Catch 22, to advocate greater travel restrictions they have to start by home, and if they do they run the risk of losing one or even two congressional seats now that Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is retiring.
Other spheres where the opponents of greater contacts seem to be resigned to the advances of détente in the Strait of Florida are the contacts between national security and domestic law enforcement entities, the migration issue and the possible expansion of food sales. Trump had the opportunity, in the heat of the moment, of reversing Obama’s end of the wet foot / dry foot policy and he didn’t do it. On other issues, Secretary of Homeland Security Kelli and Secretary of Agriculture Pardue have expressed their position in favor of continuing the advances made in the Obama era placing the national interests of the United States in terms of security and commerce before those negotiated during the elections with the representatives-elect of the Cuban community in southern Florida. Each time the pro-embargo lobby group has come up against a firm opinion of the security and defense agencies – as is the case of the contacts in Guantanamo or with the groups of farmers – it has had to let it go by. The pro-embargo groups are not strong in the U.S. system, their relative success in maintaining that policy is due more to the waste of resources, the bad political management, and the arrogance of those who direct the lobby groups against such a policy.
None of this means that the supposed reassessment of the Cuba policy by the Trump administration is not going to result in setbacks for bilateral relations. Compared to President Obama’s focus, concentrated in advancing U.S. interests and values in Cuba, Trump has a transactional focus centered on obtaining concessions from his interlocutors. It is a bad point of departure for relations with Cuba and the treatment of asymmetric relations by a big power with a small neighboring country, but it is the essence of how the current U.S. president sees the world. Trump and his Secretary of State Tillerson are businessmen by essence and that makes them different from the rigid focus that the Helms-Burton Act and its straightjackets generated. The most probable is that they not place at risk relations with third countries for the sake of putting pressure on the Cuba issue as the two Bushes did, but there are also affinities between the supremacist arrogance of Trump and Helms and their vision of Cuba and Latin America in general.
In politics fooling others can help, but not fooling oneself. Leaving aside the turns taken by the intellectuals of the dizzy spells in Washington, Miami and even Cuba, Donald Trump’s victory in November was a defeat for the forces in favor of the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States. It is true that their relations with the pro-embargo right are circumstantial and based on principles, that there was a history of conflict with Marco Rubio whose wounds haven’t healed, and that the Republican communities in favor of an improvement in relations with Cuba are growing. But in the end, no one who’s first reason for voting was relations with Cuba left with the real estate millionaire. Trump is probably going to use the Cuban issue as an exchange coin in his bargaining with the Cuban-American Republican lawmakers. It is evident that he has partners for that game. Demonstrating that politicking is his real surname, Congressman Mario Díaz-Balart already tried to sell his backing to the elimination of the national health plan in exchange for White House support for his anti-Cuban proposals.
The very selection of the May 20 anniversary to send the message is an expression of the continuity of a record policy of failures and lack of knowledge about Cuba. It was a concession to the pressures from the pro-embargo right so that he would say something, at least at the last minute. Such an action expressed a lack of priority and creativity. All the fatuousness of lifting the profile of May 20, 1902 against January 1, 1959 as the day of celebration in Cuba lacks a serious analysis of the vision of that date in Cuba’s history and its interpretation, even before the 1959 revolutionary triumph. Said in other words, the narrative of lifting May 20 as the Cuban idyllic moment of Martí’s realization is full of voids. It falls perfectly inside the Fidelista dichotomy that divides in challenging the camps of those in favor of changes in Cuba associated to the U.S. agenda of imposition and the national bloc that resists it. Inside that structure, Fidel Castro has won all the battles against the United States and the Cubans who bet for the White House as the general headquarters for promoting openings in Cuba.
May 20, 1902 is not a sad day in the history of Cuba. “We have arrived,” whispered General in Chief of the Liberation Army Máximo Gómez. But the date also has its very bitter taste for the Martí eagerness for a democratic and sovereign country. The Constitution of that republic was born tied down by the Platt Amendment – Gómez used to call it “the little account” – imposed under humiliating and unequal conditions and of military occupation, after Cuba had been excluded from the Paris Treaty negotiation. The republic was born with a limp on that day, it did not include at the time Isla de Pinos, with onerous treaties that limited its commercial freedom, and with military bases imposed by force on Cuban territory. From there came the republic that repressed with great violence the legitimate demands for racial equality proposed by the Color Independent Party in 1912 under the pretext of avoiding disturbances and thus preventing the foreign intervention that was authorized by the constitutional appendix.
Before 1959 the Cubans celebrated May 20, and should have continued doing so from a perspective moderated by the historical analysis of nuances, without teleological perspectives that are always able to conceive “history as a weapon,” be it as Moreno Fraginals wanted it to defend the revolution when he wrote the essay or how several of those who joined him at the end of his life do today, to dismantle the bases of revolutionary nationalism. May 20 has to be celebrated from a Cuban perspective but not as the final destination of the republic, or the realization of Martí’s ideal because it was not like that. It was a point of departure that provided opportunities for the platforms to establish themselves with relative speed – compared to Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines – to exercise sovereignty and set itself loose from the neocolonial cord. On May 20 a weighed down Platt republic was born but in its ranks it contained the possible overcoming of its mistakes. A great deal of the patriotic and civic culture that led to the 1930 revolution, to the constitution of 1940 and to the very 1959 revolution came from the republican system, not against it.
The demands for the devolution of Isla de Pinos came from society and also from the State (Manuel Sanguily was President José Miguel Gómez’ secretary of state), the number of military bases on national territory was reduced from four to one and a public education system and the teaching of history and civics with republican and national principles was set up as a central nucleus. All this would have been more difficult without the negotiation and commitment the Cuban independence fighters had to accept in the harsh conditions of the intervention. Gomez, Sanguily and the Marquis of Santa Lucía negotiated with the cards they had, not with the ideal ones, since the project of a Cuban Ayacucho and of achieving Cuban independence so that it would be possible to present it to the world as a consummated fact, taking Washington and the rest of the continent by surprise, was unable to be consummated based on the failure of the Fernandina.
Neither Trump nor the official who wrote the insipid message attributing to Martí having created an “economically competitive” nation know anything about this nor are they concerned about it. The analysis of what Cuba is and how it has become what it is corresponds to the Cubans of the island and the diaspora to learn from history lessons. The dominating discourse in the Cuban right-wing exile does the same to the Revolution it criticizes that the revolution did to the republic. Fortunately, those are not the only discourses and every day qualified readings of the republic and of the Revolution are emerging with greater force in Cuba and the diaspora celebrating the anniversaries of May 20, 1902 and January 1, 1959, not as final destinations but rather as stations on the road which they are. If “Trump’s message” and some of the ideologized responses to him are good for something, it is to incite us with their bad example to seek what our alternatives should be.