As is known, the United States has always been a domestic factor in Cuban life. As with cyclones and ballgames, even though they originate “outside,” they are entrenched among us. Product of the enormous vicinity that links us and the shared history, this condition was woven even before both became nation-states.
This is not only because of the “laws” of geopolitics, but because of a mutual geocultural imprint. Let us say, for example, that nothing similar could happen to the Chinese and the Vietnamese, because, despite globalization and the Internet, they live in the antipodes, both geographical and cultural. While, with us, familiarity, and even consanguinity with what is American, is key to many things, including the modernity with which the Revolution emerged 60 years ago, and even the leadership’s ability to deal with the conflict.
Of course, the Cuban Revolution and State now play a big role in the equation that dominates bilateral relations. It is evident, however, that this is not reduced to the monaural channel between the two governments, but encompasses a kind of stereophonic network between the two countries. Now then, to what extent have these relations―intergovernmental and others―receded qualitatively, as some argue, to the situation in which they were on December 16, 2014?
It’s not necessary to present a detailed list of facts to show that, between 2017 and 2019, bilateral relations, in general, worsened.
Worst of all was the virtual suspension of the orderly migration flow―agreed since 1995-96―with the suspension of the consular office service in Havana (and Washington), using the argument of the “sonic attacks.” This problem, that perhaps may never be fully clarified, given the lack of reliable data, had two immediate effects: one was a boom of all possible conspiracy theories―in the best tradition of the political fiction genre, the more fertile if it’s about Cuba―, and despite the absence of any evidence: was Cuban Security responsible for it? The FBI? Marco Rubio? The North Koreans? The Russians? The Iranians? Etc.
The second effect, which illustrates the typical “collateral damage” of hostility, affected all Cubans, from here and there, more than the island’s government. Although those from over there may continue to come, given the exemption of the official Cuban visa, those on the island have paid the cost of not being able to travel normally, except from a third country, which virtually blocks family reunification.
The “second worst” thing that has happened in the last two years was the use of fear, and its impact on visits and contacts between the two societies.
Together with the cancellation of the people-to-people license, and the end of the cruises, the impact on academic and cultural exchanges, built against all odds over more than three decades, has been damaged as never before. Despite the interest that still exists between institutions on both sides, and not having canceled the general license for these exchanges, the “security warnings” issued by the U.S. government on the risk of visiting Cuba continue to have an inhibiting effect.
On the other hand, in relative terms, the qualitative balance depends on the glass you use to look at it, the half-full or half-empty glass. Phil Brenner has calculated that, of the 23 agreements established in the short summer of normalization, 2 are applied in a reduced or limited way (open embassies, although with little activity; commercial flights continue, although restricted to Havana); 4 have not been implemented; and one is pending congressional approval.
The remaining 16 agreed understandings, however, are still fully or partially implemented. That is, although bilateral contacts, meetings and reviews have been reduced to a minimum or don’t exist, cooperation is maintained at the operational level between coastguard services in matters of migration and drug trafficking, in almost all 12 categories that allow visiting the island (except people-to-people), the service of the 14 airlines that fly (from several cities in the United States), the license granted for cooperation in cancer treatment to the Rockwell Institute with the Center for Molecular Immunology, the direct postal service, air transportation safety measures, meteorological and climate information, law enforcement, search and rescue of vessels….
On a general level, what happened in 2017-2019 questions at least four common grounds.
1 The first is that the United States’ Cuba policy was dictated by the pressure group of the “Cuban-American exile,” as the media on both sides curiously agree in affirming. The proof consists on the list of everything that has NOT happened (and that this group would like that it happens), including the braking of diplomatic relations, the return of Cuba to the list of terrorist countries, the ban on AT&T, Google and other communication companies on cooperating with Cuba, the illegalization of academic and cultural exchanges. The explanation of this policy conceived and implemented by the White House, lies rather in the old U.S.-Cuba-Latin America triangle.
In other words, the prohibitions, restrictions and activation of sanctions are aimed at punishing Cuba for its link with Venezuela, which is the strategic objective of all actions against the island. The overthrow of Chavismo, not the very improbable one of the “Castro-communism,” is its raison d’être.
2 The second common ground is the assumption that U.S. policy would change in response to the advance of internal changes in Cuba. As is evident, nothing that happened between 2017 and 2019 (new government, new Constitution, continuity of reforms, market role, extension of Internet access, etc.) has left a trace on the content of that policy. Rather they seem inversely proportional.
3 Third, the thesis that the Cuban government (“deep down”) is reluctant to improve its relations with the United States, because it is afraid of normal relations and the lifting of the embargo. There is nothing in the official discourse that reveals the intention to put an end to the negotiations or cause an irreversible break with an administration as universally intractable as Trump’s. The idea of rejecting the lifting of the blockade, after having denounced it throughout the year, and having made everyone vote against it, is rather absurd.
4 Fourth―and perhaps most importantly for the Cuban side―is that none of the internal changes (the transition to another socialism) are linked to how relations with the United States are going. Although normalization would be desirable to facilitate these changes, they are not hostages of the blockade, and even of renewed hostility. The same happens with activism in foreign relations, in particular, the strengthening of alliances not only with China and Russia but also with the European Union, and the search for new ones, beyond Latin America and the Caribbean, especially in Asia. Seen this way, the country would be less isolated than ever.
Finally, if that local industry in South Florida called anti-Castro-ism had the key to the White House’s policies, it would have virtually paralyzed visits to the island, blocked or dominated communication between Cubans living inside and outside, stopped remittances.
According to recent figures, in 2019 the number of Americans who came to Cuba decreased by 20% compared to 2018. That is, it went from 623,172 to “only” 498,538. We are talking about almost half a million visitors, only lower than the flow of Canadian tourism. As for Cubans residing in the United States, their number grew to 552,816, that is, 6% more than in 2018. It’s not that bad for being at “the worst moment” since the enactment of the Helms-Burton Act.
It is said that immigrants are, everywhere, those citizens who vote with their feet, not only when they leave, but when they return. In which case, the real Cuban-American society has little to do with that hardened policy. It would be logical to expect that their Republican authors would lose the Cuban vote in the next elections. And that most of those Cubans would get organized to put pressure on the administration, so that, at least, the migration normalcy would be restored, and the limits on remittances were raised.
While we wait on this side over here, in Cuba, for this logic to take place, progress could be made in the normalization of the immigrants’ citizenship status, beyond ideological differences. If that were the case, at least this cooling would have been used to establish that the climate between the United States and Cuba does not interfere in relations with these Cuban immigrants.
This would be an act of internal politics, detached from all external conditioning, which would reaffirm the role of reforms in the consolidation of national sovereignty.
In other words, just to end with a paradox, another one: those who conceive and articulate policies around the axis of hostility ignore that in Cuban political culture what is customary with the United States is the row, not dialogue. Obama, of course, was better than Trump for almost everyone; although at the same time, he presented the government with unprecedented complications. Sanctions and insult are a disaster, but they are simpler, because it’s the pattern of the 1960s. Something familiar.