Interview with Kenia Serrano, President of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP), by Helen Yaffe, Havana, 4 January 2017
Helen Yaffe: Why has the United States changed its strategic focus towards Cuba?
Kenia Serrano: The United States came under international pressure from different states, including Latin American and Caribbean countries. Fundamentally those countries recognised Cuba’s contribution to the development of their people; training human resources in different sectors; medical education; engineers; teachers; or developing literacy campaigns. Cuba does this without seeking anything in exchange, based on principles, our commitment to internationalism. This has made an important contribution in those countries, which don’t have political, economic or social systems similar to Cuba’s socialist system. From within those countries a strong consensus has grown in favour of Cuba’s reincorporation into the structure of the Americas.
The United States was isolated from the world, not only from Latin America and the Caribbean which it has always considered its ‘back yard’, but also in its policy of the blockade, its policy of terrorism, its policy of pressure which, as well as the blockade, was expressed by the precondition that Cuba should change its political system before the United States would re-establish relations. This is something that characterised the US approach for more than 50 years. As a country suffering directly the impact of the global crisis of the economic system, the United States needed to renew its influence in Latin America and the Caribbean. It had lost space and influence with the victory of different progressive processes in the region. This was after a stage of savage neoliberalism that favoured the United States but then created the conditions for important progressive changes that occurred in Venezuela, in Brazil, in the ALBA countries – Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, also in Argentina.
The United States could not show that Cuba was a threat to its national security; that it was bad for US citizens to travel to Cuba. In fact, despite all the changes, US citizens are still prohibited from coming to Cuba freely, they have to apply for a licence.
They are also calculating on this being an historic moment; looking at the clock, betting on the disappearance of the historical leadership of the Cuban Revolution to bring profound changes. Not the logical changes you expect with a generational shift, as happens in all countries, but anticipating the abandonment of socialist ideas, abandoning revolutionary ideas. Evidently this a very important error in their calculation. I have a deep conviction that here in Cuba there is a strengthening of our ideas, our patriotism, the ideas of Fidel, of Martí.
What new factors could come into play with the new Trump administration?
The new administration is still a rather unpredictable variable… Regardless of the administration, Cuba will continue to demand that any government in the United States change the policy towards Cuba; that the blockade is eliminated, land illegally occupied in Guantanamo is returned; regime change programmes and illegal TV and radio transmissions in Cuba are ended; there is compensation for the economic and human damage caused by the blockade against Cuba.
The signs from President Trump are that his administration will be totally different from previous administrations. President Trump was very rude about Fidel Castro, historic leader of the Revolution. This is unforgivable, because if there is something which distinguished Fidel in his impeccable conduct throughout his life, it is the respect he showed towards adversaries. Fidel objected to them ideologically, he always used ideas as his main arsenal in his ideological struggle against imperialism, capitalism, Zionism, xenophobia, racism, the great enemies of the people. President Trump showed a resounding lack of emotional intelligence, a resounding lack of political education.
How is the United States rapprochement towards Cuba interacting with the endogenous restructuring process?
There is no direct effect. The relations between Cuba and the United States are part of a process in which Cuba is very clear about its principles; what we want, why we are doing everything we have done. The process of updating the economic model began much earlier than the important talks which were established, first secretly, and then made public on 17 December 2014, when the Cuban Five were released and our president Raul Castro announced the restoration of diplomatic relations, and the subsequent reopening of embassies, and what could be a future process of normalisation. It is very clear that Cuba’s internal politics is not on the table for negotiation… Historically, practically everything that the United States does is calculated to benefit its own interests as an empire – for profit. We are very aware of this because we struggled with that empire for a long time.
In terms of the process of updating the economy, an improvement in relations where Cubans and people and institutions in the US, civil society and governmental, could co-exist peacefully in a civilised and respectful manner would be positive. Of course, that would enable the US population itself to improve its wellbeing. Because Cuba has scientific developments that people in the US do not know about… With improved relations between Cuba and the United States, the process of updating the socialist model could proceed at a faster pace, which we Cubans want. [In 2016] the economy did not grow as expected,1 exports did not reach the levels anticipated, hard currency revenues were below expectations, because of the complex international scenario: the right-wing conservative restoration in Latin America, crisis conditions for migrants, the impact of the oil price, all of this looms over Cuba.
If Cuba could acquire [from the US] products to maintain the Revolution’s extensive public sector – the pencils we buy in China, if we could buy them in the United States, our Cuban schools would have greater efficiency. We would have already achieved internet access in every home in Cuba, and would not have to wait until 2018 for internet access in every Cuban classroom. We would have achieved this already if there had been better relations with the United States.
In terms of international solidarity, what has been the impact of the 17 December 2014 announcement?
First was the impact of the victory attained with the freedom for the Cuban Five…after 16 years of intensive struggle without respite to free those men, to demonstrate the injustice of their incarceration. There has been a misunderstanding about the significance of the 17 December announcement, and the United States has made quite intentional use of it in the media. There are those who see some kind of honeymoon between Cuba and the United States; if there are diplomatic relations, then the blockade will be lifted…
The solidarity movement with Cuba understands that the essence of our struggle is not even against the blockade, the essence of our struggle is in defence of the social, political and economic system that Cuba has built, which is a socialist system that puts human beings at the centre. The terrible economic damage that the blockade has caused, which has mobilised solidarity, obviously has to be combatted. But beyond that, this is a strategic struggle for the respect of Cuba’s sovereignty and for the sovereignty of all countries… The solidarity movement understands that there is a new scenario in which to develop solidarity work; that it is not sufficient to defend Cuba with political declarations and good slogans alone. While these are important, it is necessary to appropriate the arguments, to understand Cuba’s history, why Cuba took the path it did, the rupture Cuba had to make with its previous dependent economic model and how Cuba, despite thousands of obstacles, has preserved its economy without falling for the neoliberal recipes that have been suggested to us. Not just by countries with models antagonistic to Cuba’s, but also by countries with a similar humanist vocation, but that supposedly found in neoliberalism a solution, a way to escape their problems of lacking external financing, of low development of the productive forces; but who paid a high social cost. Cuba has been able to preserve the human focus, preserve its people, without paying the social cost of choosing the neoliberal recipe… We don’t want a system that has great economic indicators at a cost – that people don’t have healthcare, education, welfare. This is not the model that we have chosen.
ICAP’s role is to keep the solidarity movement connected with the updating of the economic model, with our reality – not to present Cuba as perfect, which we are not, but also not to accept the slander and distortions that have been presented. This is why ICAP was founded 56 years ago…
The solidarity movement is a safeguard of the Revolution; an element of our peoples’ national security. And it is not something we built. This movement has emerged inspired by Cuba, it has its own voice and head, walks on its own feet. It is not led by anyone in Cuba. The solidarity movement is autonomous, genuine and authentic and it will exist as long as there are Cubans in the street defending their Revolution.
How resilient will Cuba’s political and economic structures prove to the forces unleashed in the process of opening up both the economy and to the United States?
The resistance of the organisations of Cuba’s political system will guarantee it, as they have until today. In the Constitution, we have declared the irreversible character of socialism and the socialist character of the Revolution. We have just ratified the concept of Revolution that Fidel bequeathed to us… There is the concept of the role of the [Cuban Communist] Party, recognised in Article 5 of the Constitution as the leading force of society and the state. It is not a mass party, but a vanguard Party. It is an example in society and every member of the Party emanates that example for ordinary Cubans. This will be an element of resistance to attempts to impose a multiparty system, to get Cuba to make concessions, to the avalanche of economic and political models that proliferate within the United States and the rest of the world.
As long as Cuba does not forget its history, this will be a key element in our resistance to the influence that the United States has always tried and will try to exercise over Cuba. But against every Superman an Elpidio Valdés2 will be created … Fidel’s optimism is an element of resistance to the egoistic and profit seeking interests of the United States. They cannot defeat our inspiring example; that we can do more than our budget. They can’t resist our ability to get around the blockade and get medicines we need in the United States and bring them to Cuba. Or that there are friends of Cuba throughout the world who get those medicines, that someone here might be dying without, and they take them to a third country, a fourth or fifth country, and they bring them here. We don’t pay anything for that, people just do it because Cuba takes risks every day for the rest of the world and the world is grateful and reciprocates, and risks for Cuba. The United States cannot counter that.
This is the war in which they have been unable to defeat us; that of intelligence, of guerrilla warfare, which we are trained in every day. We have demonstrated that, without any superiority in military or economic terms, or in natural resources. The superiority of our model has always been based on national unity, on strong political leadership that is born from the masses and an educated people. As long as Cuba maintains these distinctive features, an educated people who participate in politics and decision making, this will be a giant block against the desire to transform the political organisations which have deep roots here.
FRFI, 255 February/March 2017
- The Cuban economy retracted by 0.9% in 2016 for the first time in 23 years.
- A Cuban cartoon character, a mambí colonel in the struggle for independence from Spain.