Andres Oppenheimer

Andres Oppenheimer: Will renewed U.S.-Cuba ties mean a new era for Cuba?

A NEW DAY: Cuban leader Raúl Castro Ruz (R) looks at President Barack Obama (L) after his address during the memorial service of South African former president Nelson Mandela. Cuba and the U.S. last week announced plans to normalize relations.
A NEW DAY: Cuban leader Raúl Castro Ruz (R) looks at President Barack Obama (L) after his address during the memorial service of South African former president Nelson Mandela. Cuba and the U.S. last week announced plans to normalize relations. AFP/Getty Images

President Barack Obama’s new policy of seeking a normalization of ties with Cuba may have been a good decision in light of the failure of the six-decade-old U.S. embargo, but one of the biggest — and least talked about — lingering question is whether the Cuban regime will allow it to happen.

All dictatorships — and Cuba is a dictatorship under any dictionary’s definition — need an enemy to justify their suppression of democratic freedoms. Political confrontation is part of their DNA. They need to portray themselves as victims of a domestic or foreign aggression to have an excuse to prohibit free elections, ban labor unions, or allow independent media.

While much attention has been focused on whether the upcoming Republican-controlled U.S. Congress will allow Obama to implement his proposed Cuba policy changes, Cuban leader Gen. Raúl Castro’s Wednesday address to the nation announcing the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations raised just as critical questions about whether Cuba will give a green light to normal ties with Washington.

Castro left no doubt in his speech that Cuba will continue playing the victimization game. He appeared in full military uniform, as if to signal that Cuba is still a country at war, denounced Washington for its remaining economic sanctions, and made no mention of any plans to open up Cuba’s political system.

“This (U.S.-Cuba) agreement does not mean that the main problem has been resolved,” he said. “The economic, commercial and financial blockade that causes enormous human and economic damages to our people must end.”

Even though the 1960 U.S. trade embargo on the island, which has been substantially weakened over the years, will be further eroded under Obama’s executive actions to allow greater travel and commerce with the island, the Castro regime will keep the remaining U.S. sanctions as the center-piece of its domestic and foreign policy.

And in the unlikely event that the newly elected Republican-led U.S. Congress totally scrapped the embargo, Castro would come up with other excuses to maintain a state of hostility with Washington, such as demanding hundreds of billions of dollars in U.S. reparations for the six-decade-long trade embargo, many critics of the Cuban regime say.

In the past, Cuba has often sabotaged U.S. attempts to improve bilateral ties. When former President Jimmy Carter negotiated with Cuba the opening of Interests Sections in Washington and Havana in 1977, and U.S.-Cuban relations were beginning to improve with the signing of health and maritime agreements, former Cuban ruler Fidel Castro sent 12,000 troops to Ethiopia and later unleashed a series of events that led to the Mariel boatlift crisis, causing bilateral ties to collapse.

Years later, when President Bill Clinton was trying to normalize ties with Havana in 1996, Cuba shot down two U.S. civilian Brothers to the Rescue planes that were patrolling international waters in search of Cuban refugees lost at sea. The attack by Cuban Air Force planes drove Clinton to shelve his overtures to Cuba, and impose sanctions on the island instead.

Other Cuba observers argue, however, that this time Cuba may not want to torpedo Obama’s normalization proposal. They argue that Raúl Castro is more pragmatic than his older brother Fidel, and — especially in the face of a possible loss of Venezuela’s massive oil subsidies to Cuba — may have no other choice but to seek a greater influx of U.S. tourism and remittances. Raúl Castro’s much trumpeted economic reforms have failed to jump-start Cuba’s economy, and he desperately needs a new foreign benefactor, the argument goes. Cuba’s economy barely grew by 1.3 percent this year, one of its lowest growth rates in recent years.

And the island is now threatened with losing its lifeline of an estimated 100,000 barrels a day of subsidized oil from Venezuela, which — much like Russia, another top Cuban ally — has been hardly hit by the recent collapse of world oil prices.

Largely because of worsening economic conditions, record numbers of Cubans are fleeing the island, many of them taking advantage of more relaxed travel policies announced last year. According to official U.S. estimates, 25,000 Cubans arrived in the United States this year, twice as many as last year, and three times more than three years ago. Likewise, 120,000 Cubans moved to Ecuador over the past four years seeking a way out of the island.

Other analysts argue that Cuba may not torpedo the new normalization talks with Washington because there is a new player — Brig. Gen. Alejandro Castro Espín, Raúl Castro’s son and top aide — who is the power behind the scenes in Cuba, and who allegedly believes that the Castro dynasty stay in power indefinitely without maintaining hostile relations with Washington.

“Alejandro Castro Espin has a different mentality than Raúl and Fidel Castro,” Guillermo Fariñas, a prominent member of Cuba’s peaceful opposition, told me last week. “He wants to do like Vietnam, China or Russia, which have managed to get their enemy — the United States — to finance their dictatorships.”

According to this school of thought, the Castro clan descendants want to set the stage for a Russian-styled state capitalist dictatorship, such as that of President Vladimir Putin, which they call “tropical Putinism.” Under this scenario, the Cuban armed forces —which already run the most profitable sectors of the Cuban economy — would maintain political and economic control after Raúl Castro ends his term in office, while holding normal trade ties with the United States.

Fariñas, like many other dissidents, considers that Obama “betrayed” his promise to Cuba’s peaceful opposition that he would not make any major decision on Cuba without consulting it with Cuba’s civil society.

“But what’s done is done,” Fariñas said. “Now, he should submit a democratic road-map to the Cuban government.”

In upcoming U.S-Cuba normalization talks, Obama should ask that Cuba free all political prisoners without expelling them from the country, allow political parties, and freedom of expression, he said. Since the bilateral talks to normalize ties are just beginning, the United States can still make democratic demands in exchange for Cuba’s economic requests, he added.

In the United States, many human rights supporters are wondering whether Obama ditched a four-decades-old U.S. policy of defending democracy and human rights in the Western Hemisphere when he equated Cuba with China and Vietnam.

In his Dec. 17 Cuba policy speech, Obama stressed the fact that Washington has long had relations with China and Vietnam, which are also Communist-ruled countries.

But that undermines the very premise of U.S. policy in the Americas under both Democratic and Republican presidents since the 1970s, critics say. Under that policy, which has since been incorporated into key inter-American treaties, U.S. officials used to say that while Washington had done bad things in the Americas in the 19th and early 20th Century — such as supporting the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua, or helping overthrow leftist president Salvador Allende in Chile — the United States had turned the page in the 1970s and forged a bipartisan consensus in support for democracy and human rights in the hemisphere.

“Obama has normalized relations with Cuba, but at the price of returning to the despicable policy of moral indifference in Latin America,” wrote Cuban intellectual Carlos Alberto Montaner. “That’s a disgrace.”

My opinion: Both supporters and opponents of Obama’s opening to Cuba with little or no Cuban concessions make very valid points. But beyond the questions of whether Obama’s normalization plan will work better than the failed Cuba isolation policy — which may not become clear for several years —we should take the whole talk about a “new era” in U.S.-Cuba relations with some skepticism.

Obama and Castro have only agreed to begin discussing normalizing ties, a process that will take time and may collapse as it did many times in the past. Obama will not have an easy time ditching the longstanding U.S. policy of defending democracy in the Western Hemisphere, which still enjoys strong bipartisan support in Congress.

And the Cuban regime will have a hard time abandoning its historic anti-U.S. stands, which have long been its main justification for suppressing fundamental freedoms at home. The minute it finds a new benefactor to replace Venezuela and Russia, or finds another way to get out of its current economic hole, it may once again play the victim and scrap its talks with Washington.

More than the beginning of a new era, this looks more like the beginning of a new chapter in a long saga whose real turning point may come the day when Fidel and Raúl Castro die.

Sunday: Five years of economic reforms.

Today: More measures needed to deepen reforms.

Wednesday: Cubans seek opportunities abroad.

Saturday: Reforms lead to open talk of race.

Today: Oppenheimer Report: Reforms and new relationship with U.S. give cover to a dictatorship.

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