Is U.S.-Cuba Normalization Over? (If It's Not, It Might As Well Be)
This Sunday, Cuba will hold what passes for parliamentary elections there. Voters will ratify National Assembly candidates pre-selected by the ruling Communist Party. On April 19 the Assembly will elect one of its own as President of the country.
It’s a neat little system that’s even less democratic than the U.S. Electoral College.
But Cubanologists point out that for the first time in 59 years, someone named Castro won’t be rubber-stamped as the island’s boss. President Raúl Castro, 86, who succeeded his late brother Fidel Castro a decade ago, says he’ll hand the office to a younger leader.
That’s of course no guarantee of the political and economic change that repressed and deprived Cubans want and urgently need. In reality, Castro and the country’s other octogenarian overlords plan to stick around and keep their military-communist complex intact.
Still, this is the sort of generational torch-passing that can eventually morph into reform. And that would be especially true if the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations – and U.S. engagement with Cuba – had lasted. In that case, the U.S. and the Cuban people could have leveraged a more influential role in helping prod change.
But normalization didn’t last. For all intents and purposes it’s over, less than four years after it happened. For that we can thank, equally, anti-Cuba hardliners in the U.S. and anti-U.S. hardliners in Cuba. Both, we’ve now learned, get their way in the end. Their obsession with keeping the cold-war status quo is stronger than any desire among the rest of us to bring Cuba, and America’s dealings with it, into the 21st century.
In the end, the U.S. and Cuban hardliners' obsession with keeping the cold-war status quo is stronger than any desire among the rest of us to bring Cuba, and America's dealings with it, into the 21st century.
A devastating nail in normalization’s coffin was last week’s announcement by the U.S. that its embassy in Havana will become a "minimum personnel" post. The Trump Administration says it can’t ensure the safety of a regularly staffed embassy after two dozen U.S. personnel (mostly CIA agents) suffered hearing loss and other injuries there from alleged “sonic attacks.” (In response, the U.S. has expelled Cuban diplomats from their embassy in Washington.)
The cause of those maladies remains a mystery. But it’s highly questionable whether they warrant downgrading the embassy to a glorified DMV branch - especially since that decision was most likely driven as much by political agendas, namely those of Florida Senator Marco Rubio and the rest of the hardline Cuban-American congressional caucus that wants to nix normalization altogether.
Either way, it means the embassy likely won’t be able to process the annual 20,000 immigrant visas for Cubans under an agreement the countries inked in 1994. That matters because those migrants send billions of dollars in remittances back to relatives in Cuba – who use the cash not only for daily survival in the island’s threadbare economy, but for creating private businesses that mean a measure of independence from their Orwellian state.
In turn, those fledgling entrepreneurs rely to a large extent on Americans’ ability to travel to and do business with Cuba – which, at the behest of the Rubio crowd, President Trump last year made it harder for Americans to do.
DINOSAURS IN FATIGUES
Why they’re so willing to undercut engagement with ordinary Cubans in order to undermine relations with official Cuba is anybody’s guess. But they’re only half the reason normalization is all but dead.
Blame Cuba, too. Even if the acoustic incidents in Havana were unintentional – a leading theory, one fortified recently by University of Michigan scientists, is that they resulted from conventional eavesdropping gone awry – Castro is apprised of every minute detail of Cuban spy work. If the theory is correct, he shouldn't have let botched spy work happen on his watch.
More broadly, though, Castro and Cuba’s hardliners – dinosaurs in fatigues like Ramiro Valdés, also 86, who once called Internet freedom “a tool for global extermination” – were discrediting normalization long before the sonic storm. In the past couple years they’ve cracked down on Cuba’s private sector, most recently slashing the number of business licenses, and ramped up at least short-term arrests of dissidents.
All of which makes the Cuban elections seem business as usual, despite the new blood. Continued normalization might have made them more meaningful. But the only thing being normalized now, on both sides of the Florida Straits, is the bad blood.