In a well-known poem from 1968, Heberto Padilla describes a man who is asked to successively hand over parts and capacities of his body. When he has yielded them all, they urge him to walk straight into the future, “because in difficult times/this is undoubtedly the decisive test.”
Although those verses, at the time so controversial, referred to the asymmetry between the state and the individual, their poetic allure allows us to reread them as a metaphor for the asymmetry of powers between the U.S. and Cuba, and the difficult deal between our two nations and countries.
Now that a window for understanding between the two sides seems to be opening again, as a result of the recent elections in the United States, some ask the question: what will the island’s government do to seize this new opportunity, on which the country’s future depends?
In English it is said “it takes two to dance the tango.” Unlike the rumba, in which the dancers evolve on their own, when one dances so close as in tango, there is no way to judge what one is doing without seeing (and understanding) what the other is doing. To truly appreciate it, would be necessary rewind a little the tango of normalization.
Despite the rule of law and the balance between the three powers that govern the United States, most of what was agreed with Cuba during Obama’s short summer did not have the stability of agreements between states, but only between governments. That trait, by the way, is nothing new. Throughout 60 years almost none of the main agreements have been endorsed by Congress to become treaties, because for the Executive understandings have been enough, leaving him a free hand to change them if it suits him. These are the cases of the migratory agreements of 1965, 1984 and 1995, the airplane hijacking of 1973, the fishing and maritime limits of 1977, and so on.
Of the 22 bilateral instruments adopted during the Obama administration (the largest tango round in more than half a century), almost all barely had the category of memorandums of understanding (MOUs): regular flights, passenger and commerce safety, health cooperation on cancer, application of the law and its enforcement; as well as conservation and management of marine protected areas, hydrography and geodesy for maritime safety, exchange on agriculture and related areas, conservation of wildlife and protected areas, inspection of animal and plant health.1
Beyond the category of MOUs, there were agreements that reestablished diplomatic relations and the opening of permanent diplomatic missions―the first with the Obama administration―and cooperation between the Ciénaga de Zapata Park and the Everglades Park in the protection of animal life, which was the last. The rest consisted of “joint declarations” on migration policy (giving continuity to the agreement signed in 1995) and environmental protection; a pilot plan for direct postal service and a joint program for the teaching of English. Only the one referring to the delimitation of the continental shelf in the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico, beyond 200 miles, which reformulated the 1977 agreement, reached the category of treaty. The legal existence of this instrument is rather virtual, since it has not been submitted to Congress for approval.
The list of understandings and agreements reflects the diplomatic level reached by the normalizing process under way under the Obama administration. How to appreciate this tango from the “bottom” side? To put it in fashionable language in these parts, preparing to negotiate with the United States government implied for Cuba investing in a joint venture whose counterpart presented only memoranda of intent, without providing seed money, lines of credit, or fresh capital, or the signing of a contract. It involved handing over to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a corporation called America Inc., which was going to leave office in a very short time, a loan that included unusual accesses, overcoming the lack of reliability accumulated by that corporation in the Cuban, regional and global market.
To finish the idea with the same jargon, although the CEO and other executives of America Inc. argued that they had to deal with their shareholders in an assembly called Congress, which greatly complicated their decisions, the Cuban government-Party business counterpart also had to struggle with a diversity of opinions, up and down, logically concerned about risks and collateral costs that did not have insurance to guarantee them.
In previous texts I drew attention to the asymmetric nature of the process called normalization with the U.S. I listed unilateral actions by Cuba, which, despite emerging negative reactions from both sides, and specific disagreements about tango steps, contributed to making the will to continue dancing until the end prevail. The largest of these decisions involved discarding the choreography used by China and Vietnam, whose full diplomatic relations with the U.S. previously passed through commercial and financial normalization, security and cooperation. By putting the opening of embassies ahead of lifting the embargo, Cuba prioritized the beginning of dialogue and negotiation, despite the risks and costs mentioned above.
What I have said has no other intention than to establish the milestones of this recent history, apparently forgotten by some when they speak of “lack of response from Cuba.” By no means do I intend to devalue the merits and achievements of the intense diplomacy deployed by both sides, but only to dot certain i’s.
The last of those points is strategic. In a framework of radical asymmetry, such as that between Cuba and the United States, a negotiating process that follows a quid pro quo mechanism—that is, of bartering—is fatal. This mechanism is reflected in questions such as “what domestic changes will Cuba make in reciprocity for the U.S., after 58 years, to lift the embargo?” or “what would the Cubans give in exchange for the return of control of those 117 square kilometers of its territory occupied by the U.S. Navy at the entrance to Guantánamo Bay, since 1898?
I know that for some those questions are legitimate. And it is not that the issues of the embargo and the naval base don’t deserve to be worked on together, in scenarios of the resolution of conflicts that creatively imagine mechanisms for overcoming differences, mutually agreed upon. But a Cuban government that accepts them as part of the quid pro quo logic, with a communicating vessel inward, would risk not only opening a flank in its negotiating position, but, above all, a loss of legitimacy, both among its followers as well as many other citizens, inside and outside the island, for whom the defense of national interests passes through sovereignty, above all.
To retrace the steps of our tango, I invite you to reread the string of agreements noted above and to answer some questions. To what extent do they reflect both sides’ interests? Which of these instruments were unilateral concessions to the Cuban government by the U.S.? In what specific areas were they achieved: economic and commercial relations, ecology, transportation, culture and education, diplomacy, security and defense? How many and which departments are involved, like Homeland Security, on one side, and the Ministry of the Interior or the Ministry of the Armed Forces on the other? To what extent did cooperation between these agencies fulfill both sides’ national interests, or did it hardly benefit the agencies themselves?
As Philip Brenner has pointed out, of the nine main agreements or MOUs, eight remain valid; three have been fully implemented; four partially or in a restricted way and the only one not validated is still respected by both parties. So almost all 23 (including the opening of embassies) are alive. As in the scene in Sleeping Beauty, in which the characters suddenly fall into a deep sleep, the nightmare of renewed hostility during Trump’s reign failed to erase what was agreed, but rather put it into hibernation.
In addition to removing Trump from the White House, these elections showed―to anyone with eyes to see beyond polls, political flip-flops and local struggles―the enormous gravitation of a conservative populism, the substrate of Trumpism, in the really existing political culture. How that living and vibrant substrate will affect the immediate future will be revealed in the ability of the Republican opposition to raise the cost and counteract the initiatives of the next government.
For now, many people of good will dream of the president-elect’s ability to heal a society divided (by Trump…) and a democracy lacerated by four years of deviation from the right path, among other well-intentioned images. Provided the success that the rectification of errors and negative trends may achieve within that great nation, it is very likely that the new government team will also prioritize the counter-reform of Trumpism in the major problem areas of its global foreign policy: European Union, China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, climate change, free trade agreements, etc.
It is within this real political framework that it would make sense then to ask our question: to what extent will the emerging political context of the U.S. elections really allow the agreements to be brought back to life and put the tango of relations with Cuba back in motion?
The denial of Trumpism should logically entail the rectification of his brutal decisions towards Cuba. In particular, those that directly affect Cubans on the island and in emigration. Although the polls and the campaign itself showed a not very bright face of that emigration, suddenly Trumpist, some preliminary figures have revealed that their vote was not ultimately as republican as predicted, and much less decisive of the electoral results in the most Cuban districts of Florida, who voted blue. Remittances, trips, the sale of food and medicine and, above all, normalization of the consulate and the process of granting visas in Havana would respond to these interests, on one side and the other.
The second moment in the logic of interrupted relations would be for the new administration to open the archives where the 22 agreements signed with Cuba were shelved, return to the point where they were in January 2017, and at least resume the dialogue and diplomacy of meetings in around what has already been agreed, even if it doesn’t advance another millimeter.
Finally, there would be the resuming of the normalization process. No think tank or lobby can provide a more articulated, precise and comprehensive strategic document for a Democratic administration than the Presidential Directive on U.S.-Cuba relations, produced by the Obama administration in October 2016, and then agreed with the entire state bureaucracy involved in any relationship with Cuba. Biden was part of the government team that produced the standardization policy in 2014 and produced that document. It would be logical for that Directive to be resumed at some point, and for it to circulate among his foreign relations team, perhaps with a handwritten note by Biden in the margin, asking for updates and adjustments, between question marks.
But in politics the most logical is not enough. Neither Cuba has the relevance it had in the peculiar situation of an outgoing administration in its final months; we are not in the world of 2016 (but virtually in that of 2021), nor is this Democratic administration coming to power as the previous one did, as is obvious from everything noted above.
On the other hand, in many journalistic comments about the Cuba-USA tango, it seems as if the two of them were alone on the dance floor. What character will the triangles of both with the European Union, China and Russia have? To what extent can the U.S.-Venezuela-Cuba triangle evolve? What factors, not only in Washington, but in Caracas and the international environment, can influence it? What will happen in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2021? In places like Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil…? Those who repeat the old tango of monodependence as Cuba’s fate don’t seem to understand the complexity of these networks of current relations and their geopolitical implications.
Four years of Trump, with high economic costs for Cuba, have not represented qualitatively new strategic challenges, since the government has more practice in dealing with U.S. hostility than with normalization. In the waiting time, circumstances have imposed the urgency of the transformations of the established order, and have accelerated its application. Perhaps when we look back, a few years from now, we can discover that misfortunes such as COVID-19 and Trump contributed to fine-tune that change, and to do so in a way totally unrelated to a negotiation with the United States.
In any case, for those who like parallels, the new administration will celebrate its first 100 days coinciding with the 8th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba. In contrast to so much theatricalization of the dominant politics in networks, and of editorials by Tyrians and Trojans, a fair look at those hundred days would allow us to anticipate how the tango is evolving, and its new steps, in difficult and decisive times.
- Philip Brenner, “Recovering Empathy: An Examination of the Cuban-US MOUs.” Paper presented at the 17th Edition of the Series of Conversations “Cuba-United States Relations: The challenge of a coexistence based on mutual interests”; December 16, 17 and 18, 2019. ISRI, Havana, Cuba.