There’s an eagerness among many in this country to begin a process of normalizing relations with Cuba. The belief persists that economic considerations could influence Raúl Castro’s policy decisions and that Cuba’s difficult economic situation will force Cuba’s leader to move toward a market economy and closer ties to the United States.
Yes, despite economic difficulties, 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 limited economic changes to tranquilize the Cuban population, but not major structural reforms that would open the Cuban economy. Cuba is not moving to a market economy. In Cuba, political considerations dictate economic decisions.
Raúl’s legitimacy is based on his closeness to Fidel Castro’s policies of economic centralization, control and opposition to U.S. policies. Raúl cannot reject Fidel’s legacy and move closer to the United States. A move in this direction would be fraught with dangers. 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 demanding 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 Washington. Russia and China have recently provided billions of dollars in credits to Cuba, and Venezuela’s aid to the island surpasses $7 billion yearly.
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Raúl is no Gorbachev or Deng Xiaoping and no friend of the United States, presiding over the worst periods of political repression and economic centralization in Cuba.
Raúl has been a loyal follower and cheerleader of Fidel’s anti-American policies and military interventions in Africa and elsewhere. In 1962, he and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev conspired to surreptitiously introduce nuclear missiles into Cuba. He supervised the Americas Department in Cuba, approving support for terrorist, guerrilla and revolutionary groups throughout Latin America, and 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.
Raúl’s politically motivated speeches in the past, in which he expressed his willingness to negotiate with the United States, are preceded by attacks on U.S. foreign policy and followed by the now-standard qualifiers that Cuba is sovereign and that its revolution won’t change.
For the past four decades, Fidel Castro had been making similar statements. Raúl’s statements are aimed at foreign audiences, the Europeans and, particularly, the U.S. Congress. He expects unilateral U.S. concessions on the embargo and the travel ban. In a rare public statement six years ago, Raúl warned that the United States should negotiate its differences with Cuba while Fidel was alive since “the U.S. would find it more difficult to negotiate with him.”
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 and economic openings — for the United States to change its policies.
No country gives away major policies without a substantial quid pro quo from the other side. Only when Raúl is willing to deal, not only with the United States, but more importantly with the Cuban people, then and only then we should sit down and talk.
Jaime Suchlicki is director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at University of Miami.