On 21 and 22 January, Cuba and the US held direct talks about restoring diplomatic relations for the first time since 1961, exploring cooperation on various issues and reviewing existing migration accords. The meeting in Havana took place one month after the historic announcements made simultaneously on 17 December 2014 by Presidents Obama and Raul Castro about a thaw in US-Cuban relations. This included a prisoner swap which finally freed the remaining Cuban anti-terrorist agents imprisoned in the US, known as the Cuban Five. The announcements followed 18-months of secret talks facilitated by Canada and the Vatican. The tactical change by the US administration reflects the failure of its Cuba policy, and economic and (geo)strategic developments which put competitive pressure on US capitalists who do not benefit from the blockade.
The head of Cuba’s delegation, Josefina Vidal, gives a press conference following talks with US representatives in Havana in January 2015.
Historic announcements: 17 December 2014
Obama announced three broad policy changes: First, the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, the re-establishment of a US embassy in Havana and a visit to Cuba of high-ranking officials to initiate talks about these issues and shared interests ‘on issues like health, migration, counterterrorism, drug trafficking and disaster response’. He cited health collaboration in Africa, where Cuba has sent hundreds of medics to fight the spread of Ebola, as an example. He asserted that the US would raise its differences ‘on issues related to democracy and human rights in Cuba.’ Second, he indicated that the US would consider removing Cuba from the US list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Third, ‘we are taking steps to increase travel, commerce and the flow of information to and from Cuba’ - making it easier for people in the US to visit Cuba, authorising financial transactions and easing some trade restrictions.
‘These are the steps I can take as President to change this policy’, Obama stated. He cannot, however, unilaterally end the US blockade of Cuba which is ‘codified in legislation’. He made explicit, however, that he considered the US blockade to be a failed policy, and hopes the US Congress would ‘lift the embargo.’
It is important to be absolutely clear. Obama is not supporting Cuba’s right to self-determination; to develop its socialist system without interference and sabotage 90 miles from the US shore. He believes that a more effective strategy to destroy Cuban socialism is to distort, seduce and pervert it through, what he calls, ‘engagement’, by imposing the logic of the capitalist market, social relations and cultural values on Cuba.
‘[W]e will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests… these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It’s time for a new approach… through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values.’
Obama’s speech exposed the hypocrisy of US policy towards Cuba when he welcomed ‘Cuba’s decision to provide more internet access for its citizens’ just after having admitted that ‘our sanctions have denied Cubans access to technology’; a tacit admission that the US blockade is the principal reason for Cuban’s limited internet access.
Perhaps referring to the brutal chaos resulting from US and Nato interventions in North Africa and the Middle East, he said: ‘it does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse… we know from hard-earned experience that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos.’ Likely Obama believes that increasing US access to Cuban society will improve the effectiveness of ongoing covert operations aimed at generating an internal opposition – a tactic which has also failed.
Cuban President Raul Castro began his brief speech by making two political assertions: first, of his political continuity with Fidel Castro who, likewise, pursued efforts to ‘normalise’ relations with the US on the basis of sovereign equality. Second, to pre-empt critics claiming that rapprochement with the US would lead to the restoration of capitalism, he reiterated that ‘the task of updating our economic model [is] in order to build a prosperous and sustainable socialism’.He continued:
‘The economic, commercial, and financial blockade, which causes enormous human and economic damages to our country, must cease…While acknowledging our profound differences, particularly on issues related to national sovereignty, democracy, human rights and foreign policy, I reaffirm our willingness to dialogue on all these issues… The progress made in our [prisoner] exchanges proves that it is possible to find solutions to many problems.’
In a speech to the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit on 28 January, Raul stressed issues on which Cuba would not compromise: ‘[the] normalisation of bilateral relations… will not be possible as long as the blockade exists, or as long as the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base is not returned, or radio and television broadcasts which violate international norms continue, or just compensation is not provided to our people for the human and economic damage they have suffered… If these problems are not resolved, this diplomatic rapprochement between Cuba and the United States makes no sense.’
On 16 January, new US rules did indeed come into effect enabling US citizens to visit Cuba without applying for licenses, although they still had to certify one of 12 ‘legitimate’ purposes for travel. Restrictions were eased on sending money to Cuba, and on spending money and using credit and debit cards in Cuba. The new rules facilitate US telecommunications, financial and agricultural companies to do business on the island.
The talks on 21 January constituted the annual review of existing Cuban-US migration accords. Despite talk of ‘normalising’ relations, the head of the US delegation confirmed that the Cuban Adjustment Act would remain in law. This encourages illegal emigration from Cuba by automatically granting US residency to any Cuban who enters the US, regardless of how they arrived. No comparable law exists for the population of any other country – so much for normalisation!
On 22 January the delegations discussed steps towards the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and reviewed the state of existing cooperation on air security, aviation and oil spills, and identified new potential areas: drug trafficking, terrorism and epidemics (starting with Ebola), seismic monitoring and protecting marine biology. The Cuban delegation proposed scientific collaboration on environmental protection, mitigating the effects of climate change and preventing natural disasters. The issue of human rights was also addressed although the discussion went beyond the US’s discredited neo-liberal script. The head of the Cuban delegation, Josefina Vidal expressed Cuba’s concerns about the guarantee and protection of human rights in the US, highlighting the continued illegal detentions and torture in the US base at Guantanamo, alarming police brutality and increasing racial discrimination. She also raised the issue of the racially-biased application of the death penalty, wage differentials which see women paid 25% less than men, the incidence of child labour and limits on trade union freedoms. The talks concluded on the need to continue talking.
A victory for Cuba
These developments represent a victory for the Cuban Revolution; a tribute to its tenacity, principles and resistance. Clearly, opening up to US capital and the ‘economic hitmen’ who fight its political battles, implies risks for Cuba that have to be managed. However, the revolutionary government understands those risks and is implementing measures to manage them. All proposals for foreign investments must be vetted by the central government. Foreign capital will be channelled to priority areas to develop Cuba’s productive infrastructure. Most foreign investments are carried out through joint ventures with the Cuban government, as Ivonne Vertiz Rolo, Vice Director the Ministry of Foreign Trade recently explained: ‘with the aim of guaranteeing the participation of our enterprises in projects of strategic interest, to effectively transfer new technologies, to raise the qualifications of the Cuban labour force and protect the environment’ (Granma, 11 December 2014). There are also legal limits on private accumulation and property ownership, while socialist state ownership predominates. Cuba is not the Wild West or the former Soviet Republics in the 1990s. It is not open to carpet baggers, oligarchs and exploiters. Only those who are ignorant of, or ignore, the devastating impact of the US blockade can argue that the opportunity to improve Cuba’s access to international markets, including in the US, should be shunned for some idealistic notion of soldiering on in isolation.
Any rapprochement with Cuba, whatever the motivation, faces ardent opposition from the right-wing Cuban exile community whose strategic handle on political and economic power has enabled it convert Cuba policy into a US domestic issue. Although the majority of Cuban-Americans support improved relations, there are politicians in the Senate and Congress who will attempt to block progress. The Obama administration has calculated that there is more to gain through ‘engaging’ Cuba than there is to lose in a conflict with a political elite that losing its leverage.
In autumn 2014, the New York Times published a series of editorials criticising US policy towards Cuba and arguing for the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. The editorials were clearly contrived to generate public support for Obama’s announcement. Policy changes introduced in Cuba since 2008 and as part of the 2011 ‘guidelines for updating the economic and social model’, especially those promoting private-farming, self-employment and small businesses, and permitting the free sale of property, have allowed US commentators to claim that Cuba is making the liberalising reforms stipulated as prerequisites for an improvement in relations. It is unlikely that the current political rapprochement would have been possible without these measures.
However, the US has also been forced into this concession by the rejection of its Cuba policy throughout Latin America, where even right-wing governments criticise US attempts to isolate Cuba. In the 1960s the US demanded that the rest of the continent break off diplomatic relations with Cuba. All except Mexico obeyed. But over the years every sovereign nation has restored relations with Cuba, leaving the US behind in a region of growing global significance that the US historically treated as its own backyard. Today, Cuba is central to the movement for regional political and economic integration; a regionalism which rejects US interference. Several countries had threatened to boycott the annual Summit of the Americas in Panama in April 2015 if the US continued to exclude Cuban participation. Obama was forced to back down: ‘This April, we are prepared to have Cuba join the other nations of the hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas’, he said.
Despite the US’s unilateral, punitive legislation prohibiting third countries from trading with Cuba, the revolutionary government has been busy diversifying trade and securing investment partners. The pace of these collaborations is speeding up, especially with the new super-port and development zone being built in Mariel, with Brazil as a major partner. Benefiting from Cuba’s important geostrategic location, the port will accommodate the world’s largest container ships (see FRFI 238). Foreign investment is set to increase significantly since Cuba’s new foreign investments law was approved in 2014 (See FRFI 240).
In his annual speech on 14 January 2015, Thomas Donohue, president of the US Chamber of Commerce, enthused about the prospects of trade with Cuba, which he perceives as a new market of pent-up demand for consumer goods, such as computers, smartphones and cars. The Chamber of Commerce is a powerful lobby which spent $35 million on the mid-term elections in 2014, and Donohue travelled to Havana in summer 2014. ‘Somebody is going to sell’ to the Cubans, Donohue said, ‘and it’s not going to be all us.’ He pointed out that many countries were increasing trade with Cuba, including Russia and China. Indeed, the Presidents of both Russia and China also visited Cuba last summer on missions to increase trade and investment.
During Putin’s trip, $32bn of Cuba’s Soviet-era debt was written off, leaving just $3bn to be paid over ten years. Repayments will be spent by Cuba on projects jointly decided with the Russians. ‘We will provide support to our Cuban friends to overcome the illegal blockade of Cuba’, Putin said on 11 July. Russia is exploring for oil and gas in Cuban waters and assisting the Mariel port construction. Cuba will host navigation stations for Russia’s own satellite global positioning system, Glonass. Other economic, financial, military and intelligence projects between the two countries are underway.
Two weeks later, Chinese President Xi Jinping made his second visit to Cuba in less than four years. Cuba’s annual bilateral trade with China is worth almost $2 billion. President Xi signed 29 trade, debt, credit and other agreements. China will continue to restructure debt, estimated at $6 billion, import Cuban nickel, sugar and cigars, digitalise the television system, upgrade communications and cyber security and cooperate in the health, education and science sectors. China is providing a $120 million loan and assistance with the construction of another new port and industrial development zone in Cuba’s second city, Santiago de Cuba. President Xi thanked Cuba for advancing cooperation between China and Latin America and strengthening South-South cooperation.
Meanwhile, the European Union is Cuba’s biggest external investor and second most important trading partner, accounting for 20% of total Cuban trade. In October 2014, British Foreign Officer Minister, Hugo Swire was the first government Minister to visit Cuba in a decade. He was there to discuss trade and investments.
In early January, some 30 US agricultural and food companies announced that they would pressure Congress to end the blockade. Other companies have stated that they will initiate trade and investments with Cuba. Meanwhile the stalwarts of the Cuban exile-community have promised to block Congressional moves to end the blockade. Republican Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart complained bitterly that ‘president Obama has given everything, all the concessions that that regime was asking for’ and ‘getting, frankly, very little’ in return. Well played Cuba!
- An edited version of this article is printed in the Feb/Mar 2015 issues of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!
*Dr Helen Yaffe, completed her doctorate in Cuban economic history at the London School of Economics. She is the author of Che Guevara: the economics of Revolution, first published by Palgrave MacMillan in English in 2009.