The U.S. president who brought us a hope-and-change campaign has helped spread the same message to Cuba after announcing the two countries would try to normalize relations.
But it’s likely Cuba will experience far more hope and far less change, at least in the short term.
Blame the Castro government for that. It doesn't want to change.
Raul Castro said as much on Wednesday, when he and Barack Obama simultaneously made the historic announcement of détente between the Cold War foes. Castro made sure to suggest socialism was in Cuba to stay, that he wasn’t “renouncing any of our principles.”
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“The heroic Cuban people,” Castro said Wednesday, “will continue to be faithful to our ideals of independence and social justice.”
Putting aside the irony of a totalitarian state’s leader talking about “social justice,” Castro’s speech Wednesday was notable not just for what he said, but for how he said it — in his green army fatigues. The message was clear: the revolution lives. Cuba remains in a state of battle.
In war, truth is often the first casualty. But to Castro’s credit he has been honest about his intentions to remain wedded to a financial system that doesn’t work for the people, only for the select group of political-military elites who live like princes while their countrymen scrounge for food.
On Saturday, in his annual speech before the communists of the National Assembly, Castro reiterated what they wanted to hear.
“In the same way we’ve never proposed that the Unites States change its political system, we will demand respect for ours,” Castro said as sustained applause rang out.
“It shouldn’t be expected that by improving relations with the United States, Cuba is renouncing the ideas for which we have fought for more than a century and for which our people have spilled so much blood and run the greatest risks,” Castro said.
Obama, perhaps, anticipated this intransigence when he announced efforts to reestablish diplomatic ties and increase trade, travel and cash remittances to Cuba.
“I do not expect the changes I am announcing today to bring about a transformation of Cuban society overnight,” Obama said Wednesday. “But I am convinced that through a policy of engagement, we can more effectively stand up for our values and help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century.”
When Obama says he’s “convinced,” he really means he hopes.
There’s little evidence Cuba will change its ways regardless of what the United States does.
After the first U.S. sanctions were instituted in 1960, America has periodically ratcheted up and down pressure on Cuba. Cuba stubbornly remained a socialist gulag throughout.
Citizens in every other country can trade completely with Cuba, yet the nation’s economy is a shambles. Save the Potemkin-village sections that tourists frequent, major parts of Havana remain powerless and rubble-like.
Those skeptical of Cuba’s blame-the-embargo claims point to the Cuba-style leadership of Venezuela. It’s becoming an economic dwarf. It has some of the world’s largest oil reserves, but it’s tough to get cooking oil.
“You want to see an example of socialism at work, look at Venezuela, a rich country, a country with intelligent hard-working people. But there’s no toilet paper or toothpaste in the stores,” U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio said at a Thursday press conference. “There’s no embargo against Venezuela. It’s because they’re incompetent. And it’s because socialism doesn’t work.”
Rubio, a leading voice of the Cuban-American exiles in Congress along with representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, says the U.S.-Cuba embargo has never been in effect in full force and long enough to make a difference.
In 1977, President Carter lifted a de facto travel ban in effect since 1963. President Reagan in 1982 tightened travel but allowed for certain types of travel-related transactions. Under President Clinton, travel was restricted then loosened. But, in 1996, he signed the Helms-Burton Act that enshrined the embargo into federal law.
Under George W. Bush, Cuba travel and remittances were tightened. But the United States started selling food to Cuba in 2002 and, by 2007, started to become Cuba’s fifth-largest trade partner.
Under Obama, travel and remittances were then seriously loosened. Last year, in-kind remittances — the money sent by mostly Cuban families in the U.S. to relatives on the island — were estimated to be worth $3.5 billion, a huge amount in a nation with a gross domestic product of $72 billion (South Florida’s GDP is $281 billion). Obama’s policies announced Wednesday will likely inject even more U.S. money into the Cuba economy.
“One feels a lot of hope,” Havana barber Francisco Gavez told a reporter from the Miami Herald’s parent company, McClatchy. “More flights will come in. The flow of tourists will grow. There will be more money.”
That feeling of “hope” Gavez mentioned wouldn’t exist without Obama. The U.S. is embargoing Cuba, not vice versa. Absent Cuba guaranteeing free speech, labor rights and fair elections (the cornerstone of Helms-Burton, which Cuba has refused to implement) the U.S. is the one that needs to move first.
Obama’s decision was a gamble, a bet that showing the Cuba regime some goodwill will result in good decisions from the Castros. If Raul Castro is true to his word and steps down in 2018, new Cuban leaders might be more amenable to less dysfunction. Maybe it’ll work. Maybe it won’t.
It's also unclear how much of Obama's plan will be blocked in Congress by critics like Diaz-Balart. He says Obama’s decision was effectively a “bailout” that gave a lifeline to a regime that had lost major help from its struggling sugar daddies, Venezuela and, before, the Soviet Union.
But Obama, pointing out he was “born in 1961 — just over two years after Fidel Castro took power in Cuba,” said it’s time to move past the past.
“Let us leave behind the legacy of both colonization and communism, the tyranny of drug cartels, dictators and sham elections,” Obama said. “A future of greater peace, security and democratic development is possible if we work together — not to maintain power, not to secure vested interest, but instead to advance the dreams of our citizens.”
Judging by Castro’s speech Saturday, that’s a lot to expect. At one point, Castro rambled on about the history of fighting Fulgencio Batista in the Sierra Maestra.
“We won the war,” Castro added, a suggestion to some that he might also be talking about the embargo battle with the United States.
Just how the U.S. can expect change from a regime like that is tough to fathom.
While everyone else hopes for change in Cuba, it looks like Castro’s hopes are limited to the “change” of U.S. currency.