Why It's Time For A Reality Check On Normalizing Relations With Cuba

Jan 14, 2015

What President Obama did on December 17 was hardly going to prevent what Cuban leader Raúl Castro did on December 30.

Obama last month announced plans to normalize relations with communist Cuba, which were severed 54 years ago. As if to test the waters in the wake of that historic decision, a new Cuban dissident group called Yo También Exijo (I Also Demand) called a free-speech gathering in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución for December 30.

To no one’s surprise – especially after Castro days earlier had explicitly insisted normalization would not change Cuba’s autocratic regime – authorities rounded up the organizers and a number of other dissidents before they could even plug in their microphones.

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The arrests were a human rights violation – and one for which Cuban exile leaders in the U.S., who oppose any engagement with the Castro government, all but blamed Obama. Re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba, they insisted, is a betrayal of the island’s pro-democracy activists. Many Cuban exiles here made the same argument at a downtown Miami rally that day in support of Yo También Exijo.

But Frank Mora, the Cuban-American director of the Latin American & Caribbean Center at Florida International University and a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Western Hemisphere, posted some common sense on Twitter afterward: “Never an expectation from [Obama],” Mora tweeted, “that Havana would stop repression.”

Mora could just as well have been addressing folks on the opposite side of the issue – those who’ve gushed that normalizing relations is a ticket to democratic reform in Cuba.

His tweet was a reminder that both camps have been guilty of facile hyperbole about Obama’s announcement. Normalization is neither a treacherous capitulation to the Castros nor the overnight catalyst for a Cuban Spring. It’s about more effectively positioning the U.S. – at least more effectively than the exile leadership and half a century of isolation policy have done – to influence change in Cuba over the long haul.

This policy is not about expecting or hoping that Raul Castro will become the next Jefferson or even Gorbachev of Cuba. - Frank Mora

At this point, with high-ranking U.S. State Department officials set to travel to Havana a week from today to start negotiating normalization’s nuts and bolts, “it’s important to do a reality check on what the president’s announcement did and did not do,” says Jose Fernandez, a Cuban-American attorney in New York and a former Assistant Secretary of State for Economic, Energy and Business Affairs.

Fernandez knows that forging ties again with Cuba is a big deal. But he and other experts I consulted say the results will probably be small – at least while Raúl Castro and his brother Fidel, both in their 80s, are still alive.

That’s because normalization doesn’t change the basic fact that what the U.S. wants in Cuba and what the Castros want remain diametrically opposed.

“We’d like to see an independent private sector,” says Fernandez. “That’s not exactly what they have in mind.”

 What the Castros have most in mind is making sure normalization doesn’t threaten their hold on Cuba. So even though they released 53 dissidents from prison this week as part of the normalization deal, it’s not like free elections are around the corner.

“This policy is not about expecting or hoping that Raúl Castro will become the next Jefferson of Cuba or even the Gorbachev of Cuba,” says Mora.

Or the next Cuban capitalist. Obama wants to let Americans do more business with Cubans who own small enterprises under Raúl Castro’s limited economic reforms. But the real question is whether Castro will let Cubans do more business with us – receiving more non-remittance U.S. investment or exports like telecom and building materials. So far that’s uncertain at best.

“The lack of response by the Cuban government to any of what the president has announced is telling,” says John Kavulich, a veteran Cuba watcher and senior policy adviser for the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York. “They’re only going to accept what they feel they can control, and no further.”

OUR LADY OF WISHFUL THINKING?

Jerry Haar, an FIU international business professor, agrees – and he says Obama is pinning too much hope on the Castros loosening their grip.

“This truly is for those who worship at the church of Our Lady of Wishful Thinking,” says Haar.

Then again, even Haar says it’s worth at least trying to help Cuba’s independent entrepreneurs. And Fernandez and other experts say the expectations that normalization has raised among Cubans themselves make it hard for Raúl not to allow more capitalist opportunities.

“Cuba has very few [finance] options,” says Fernandez. “I think the Cuban government will allow small businesses to receive investment from the United States.”

As more cracks like that appear in Cuba’s wall, more engagement makes the U.S. better situated to boost reform there when the Castros are gone and a new, perhaps more Gorbachev-like generation of leaders emerges.

“Having a larger presence inside a country as it’s making changes is far more beneficial than looking in from outside the fence,” says Kavulich.

As a result, says Mora, Obama took last month’s step not because he thought it would stop dissident arrests today, but because “in spite of the Cuban government, it’s creating conditions that will facilitate or ease a transition towards a more open and free society.”

Short-term regime change in Cuba is a battle the U.S. lost quite a while ago. U.S. officials say they’ll be carrying the new long-term approach to engaging Cuba when they fly to the island next week.

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.