The Cuban leadership in Havana continues to try to woo the U.S. administration into providing unilateral concessions to Cuba. The embargo and the travel ban will be ended, they believe, as a result of internal pressures and a more accommodating Obama administration.
The latest attempt comes via Louis Farrakhan, the Muslim-American leader who met this month with Gen. Raúl Castro in Havana. “Raúl Castro asked me,” said Farrakhan, “to let the world know that Cuba is ready to talk with the U.S. authorities.” The same statement has been repeated recently by several Cuban officials.
Yet the issue is not about talking. The avenues for engagement between Cuba and the U.S. have never been closed. The U.S. and Cuba signed anti-hijacking and migration accords. They talk at the U.N., in Washington, and at cocktail parties. For the U.S. to change its policies there has to be a willingness on the part of the Cuban leadership to offer real concessions in the area of human rights and political change. No country changes its policies without a substantial quid pro quo from the other side.
We seem to cling to an outdated economic determinism in trying to understand events in other societies and the motivations of their leaders. Despite economic difficulties, Raúl Castro does not seem ready to provide meaningful and irreversible concessions for a U.S.-Cuba normalization. He may release and exile some political prisoners; he may offer more consumer goods and food to tranquilize the Cuban population; but no major structural reforms that would open the Cuban economy and no political openings.
Raúl’s legitimacy is based on his closeness to Fidel Castro’s policies of economic centralization and opposition to the U.S. He cannot now reject Fidel’s legacy and move closer to the U.S. A move in this direction would be fraught with danger. It would create uncertainty among the elites that govern Cuba and increase instability as some advocate rapid change while others cling to more orthodox policies. The Cuban population also could see this as an opportunity for mobilization to demand faster reforms.
Raúl is also unwilling to renounce the support and close collaboration of countries like Venezuela, China, Iran and Russia in exchange for an uncertain relationship with the U.S. At a time when the U.S. is seeking regime change in the Middle East, Raúl’s policies are more likely to remain closer to regimes that are not particularly friendly to the U.S. and that demand little from Cuba in return for generous aid.
Raúl is no Deng Xiaoping and no friend of the U.S. He has been the world’s longest-serving (48 years) minister of defense. He presided over the worst periods of political repression and economic centralization in Cuba and is responsible for numerous executions after he and his brother assumed power. While in Mexico and the Sierra Maestra before reaching power, Raúl also executed several “enemies.”
Raúl has been a loyal follower and cheerleader of Fidel’s anti-American policies and military interventions in Africa and elsewhere. In 1962 Raúl and Soviet Premier, Nikita Khrushchev conspired to surreptitiously introduce nuclear missiles into Cuba. Raúl supervised the Americas Department in Cuba approving support for terrorist, guerrilla and revolutionary groups throughout Latin America. In 1996 he personally ordered the shooting down of two Brothers to the Rescue unarmed civilian planes in international waters, killing three U.S. citizens and one Cuban-American resident from Florida.
I try to teach my students that not all problems in international relations can be solved. Some require the use of force; others, significant patience; still others, diplomacy and negotiation. In the case of Cuba, we should wait for the passing of the gerontocracy in power now and hope for a new, more flexible leadership later.
Jaime Suchlicki is professor and director, Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami and the author of “Cuba: From Columbus to Castro and Beyond.”