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Obama’s Cuba Talks: Good for PR, Bad for Democracy

By: María Teresa Romero - @mt_romero - Jan 26, 2015, 12:16 pm
El presidente de EE.UU. plantea un nuevo abordaje a la política respecto de Cuba. Sin embargo, las garantías de éxito no están aseguradas.
Renewed US-Cuba ties will not automatically result in greater freedoms for the Cuban people.  (Flickr)

EspañolChange is in the air: the first official conversations between Cuba and the United States began on January 22 in Havana, marking the fulfillment of a historic agreement announced in December by US President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raúl Castro. The renewal of diplomatic relations after almost 50 years raises a series of important questions, of which at least three merit serious reflection.

First, why has Obama taken the risky decision to give oxygen to the Castro regime at its weakest moment in recent years due to the economic collapse of its principal lifeline, the government of Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro? Will the normalizing of relations produce genuine change and political reform while the Castro dictatorship still persists? And finally, will renewed US-Cuban ties result in a democratization of Cuban society, one that has endured the iron grip of state control and communist ideology for 50 years?

With regard to the first question, with the talks being six years in the making, it’s fairly obvious that Obama firmly believes in the role of diplomacy as a counterweight to declining US influence in a globalized world. Like Jimmy Carter before him, Obama is convinced that the global power he represents is in crisis, and can no longer impose itself where it pleases without consensus.

Obama has turned to soft power to achieve many of his ends, simultaneously salvaging the US public image abroad — which in Obama’s view hit rock bottom, particularly among the countries of the Global South, under the presidency of George W. Bush.

But beyond this global strategy, in the specific case of Cuba, the internal stability of current Cuban society is more important to the Obama administration than the collapse of the Castro regime. Among Obama and his advisers, the idea prevails that political change should proceed gradually during a negotiated, non-violent transition.

In this way, Obama’s position aligns with the global view, and particularly that of Latin America, on Cuba: a policy of negotiation, diplomacy, and economic support will produce pro-democracy changes in the Caribbean nation in the medium to long-term.

Even the Vatican and Canada, who can scarcely be suspected of wanting to favor the continuation of communism in Cuba, follow the line laid down by Obama. All parties are seeking to avoid social chaos or political rupture on the island.

None have confidence in the ability of the Cuban political opposition to control a crisis situation or to fill a potential power vacuum, not without reason: the opposition are weak and divided. Likewise, US officials fear that the disorder resulting from an abrupt, uncontrolled change could provoke the launch of a thousand refugee-laden rafts for US shores.

Obama is also likely motivated by the conviction that the economic liberalization of the Castro regime must happen sooner or later as a matter of survival. As such, the president thinks, the United States (and many US-Cuban businessmen) can’t afford to remain on the margins. In fact, Washington already finds itself on the back foot, with countries such as Spain, Canada, and Brazil currently investing heavily in the island.

Also underlying Obama’s policy is the desire to improve the president’s standing after an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Republicans in November’s Congressional elections. The Democrats have one eye on 2016’s presidential elections, and the pivotal role that could be played by the Hispanic electorate.

Several public-opinion surveys duly indicate that Obama’s approach on Cuba has lifted his previously flagging popularity levels. His image as an international leader has also been strengthened, as Obama has been seen to direct and channel the current strategy of the majority of democratic countries, both European and Latin American, towards Cuba.

But will this policy of renewing diplomatic ties and normalizing relations genuinely result in political change in Cuba? It won’t necessarily guarantee a transition towards democracy in Cuba: the regime’s only priority is to survive the latest critical situation it finds itself in.

The policies of appeasement, rapprochement, and moderation may or may not be successful. But their chances of achieving anything are lessened when overseen by dictatorial communist governments, who in reality are uninterested in sticking to concessions or agreements beyond buying themselves more time.

As a result, this new path could even achieve the opposite effect: the financing of still greater levels of Cuban dictatorship through a carefully limited process of economic liberalization, along Chinese lines. In this way, Obama’s strategy will only serve to keep a lid on the multiple social and economic problems that beset the island due to the multiple failures of the Castro regime.

Nor is there any guarantee that closer ties between the United States and Cuba will automatically produce greater freedoms among the Cuban population. There’s little doubt that the majority of Cubans living on the island want a freer economy and society, especially among young people, but the old habits of statism, populism, and repression, in the absence of democratic culture and education, will likely die hard.

In any case, it’s now evident that the process of normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba will be far from easy. From the first thawing of the ice during the meeting last week between Roberta Jacobson and Josefina Vidal in Havana, disagreements have already emerged on specific issues, not least on the US policy of open arms towards would-be Cuban migrants, something Havana wants to see end.

The teams of the US State Department’s Western Hemisphere chief and the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s director of US relations also clashed on the same topic which has provoked tensions for decades: the issue of human rights and fundamental liberties, such as freedom of speech and association.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

María Teresa Romero María Teresa Romero

Romero is a journalist with a PhD in political science, specializing in international politics. She's a professor at the Central University of Venezuela, a columnist in several Venezuelan and international newspapers, and the author of several books. Follow her at @MT_romero.