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Cuba: A New Year…New Times?

By Armando Chaguaceda (@xarchano)

Political Scientist, University of Guanajuato, Mexico

Translated from the Spanish by Ted A. Henken

The recent news of an unprecedented thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations has provoked a fierce debate. It is a dispute whose foundations are the validity, legitimacy, and future of the long-standing U.S. policy of isolation; the connection between this policy and the unresolved process of democratization on the island; as well as the viability of the bilateral dialogue and the consequences that engagement may have for the political system in place in the Caribbean country.

It is erroneous to argue that Obama’s engagement with Cuba violates a U.S. policy of rejection of relations with authoritarian governments that never existed in the first place. If that were so, Washington would have neither embassies nor trade with China, Egypt, or many other governments with little respect for the ideals of popular sovereignty and political pluralism. Clearly, other geopolitical variables (limited commercial interests in Cuba and its moderate military risk) or U.S. domestic politics (the weight of the Cuban-American lobby) served to maintain the hostility toward the Cuban regime – at least until December 17, 2014 – already referred to as “D-17” on the island.

Another argument common among those who reject normalization consists of noting that, given the current crisis in Venezuela, the Cuban government finds itself in a frantic search for foreign partners, making it more open to a political opening – if we just wait “a little longer.” However, the end of the Soviet subsidy revealed that the Cuban government, which enjoys a total control of the country, can operate perfectly well in conditions of extreme financial hardship and diplomatic isolation.

In addition, at the present time Havana benefits from a greater diversification of its energy sector as well as in foreign trade and investment and international relations making it less vulnerable to outside pressures than it was in 1991. On the other hand, on the topic of Cuba the U.S. has become increasingly isolated from its allies around the globe –as revealed by the repeated and overwhelming condemnation of the embargo in the United Nations– and even among inter-American groups where it has traditionally held greater sway such the OAS (Organization of American States).

That defending Obama’s initiative as the correct path (in practical and ethical terms) should not lead us to buy into the fable that normalization will automatically lead to decisive democratizing dynamics on the island, at least in the short to medium term. It is clear –especially given Raúl Castro’s recent staunch refusal to alter the island’s political system even a “millimeter”– that the Cuban government will not commit to any political opening through its own volition as part of a negotiation with the United States to lift its sanctions. No such opening came to pass in China or Vietnam, two regimes cut from the same political cloth as is Cuba’s. The stepped up detentions and repression that ended 2014 and welcomed the new year certainly point in this direction.

Nevertheless, the new U.S.-Cuba policy of mutual engagement suggest a number of interesting possible future scenarios. The path of normalization opens up opportunities for the pluralization of civil society, greater autonomy of economic actors, and a potentially healthy repositioning of new elites in command roles (more space for civic-technocratic elites and less for military-ideological ones). Such opportunities will impact the degree of resistance and/or creativity shown by the internal opposition as it adapts to the new dynamics. Moreover, the end of the U.S. position of unilateral threat will likely strengthen the inter-American policy of peaceful democracy promotion leading regional governments to be less sanguine about Havana’s rights abuses (and perhaps more supportive of and in solidarity with U.S. criticisms).

This new scenario should also allow for a greater coming together of human rights activists and organizations on the island with their counterparts abroad, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House. This solidarity could shift the debate over the lack of fundamental freedoms and necessary democratization of the island away from an easily dismissed unilateral demand of a foreign government to one based on an independent transnational civic initiative.

We hope these and other necessary changes are the news that mark not only a new year, but also new times for Cuba and its people.

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