A Cuban Conundrum

Foreign Affairs

By: Michael Bustamente

At the new Cuban and U.S. embassies in Washington and Havana, the flags of each respective country are now waving in the muggy August air. On July 20, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez inaugurated the island’s restored diplomatic mission on northwest 16th Street by throwing a party and giving a speech. In a reciprocal affair on August 14, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry raised the stars and stripes over Havana’s northern shore. Still recovering from a broken femur, Kerry passed on the chance to learn the guachineoan animated line dance that is the latest craze among Cuban youth.

With that same energy, American travelers, businessmen, and media impresarios have descended upon Cuba in the wake of U.S. President Barack Obama’s partial loosening of travel and trade restrictions. Since 2009, Cuban Americans have been able to travel and send remittances fairly freely. Then, in 2011, the White House authorized U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba for educational exchanges known as people-to-people tours. After December 17, 2014, when Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro declared their intention to restore diplomatic ties, outright tourism remained illegal, but it became even easier to visit. As a result, the number of U.S. travelers with no family on the island, visiting between January and July, jumped 54 percent over the same period last year. In turn, the momentum in Congress for fully repealing the U.S. embargo is steadily increasing.

But under the veneer of ceremonial good feeling, contradictions between and within the involved parties—in Washington, Havana, and the Cuban diaspora in Miami—have endured. Take the anti-embargo advocates in the United States. The new advocacy organization Engage Cuba has managed to bring diverse constituencies from the private sector, think tank community, and moderate Cuban America under its tent to push for fully open travel and commerce. Although coalition members from the U.S. hospitality industry, agricultural lobbies, and electronics manufacturers may be most concerned about their bottom lines, the Cuban American group #CubaNow (also an Engage Cuba partner) has pushed for dialogue and investment as a better way to promote democracy, human rights, and open markets in Cuba. For some grassroots activists on the Left, however, Engage Cuba’s efforts seem to skirt thornier issues such as the future of U.S. democracy promotion programs. The Cuban government and U.S. progressives view these programs, narrowly tailored to support Cuban dissidents, as unlawful interference in the island’s internal affairs.

Kerry’s remarks in Havana echoed these tensions, alternating between notes of realpolitik, peace making, and a commitment to prior goals. “U.S. policy is not the anvil on which Cuba’s future will be forged,” he asserted—a historic nod to Cuba’s sovereignty. At the same time, though, Kerry stressed at a separate press conference that the embargo was not likely to be lifted if Cuba did not make advances on human rights. The old carrot and stick mantra predictably rustled feathers among government officials in Havana. In response, Foreign Minister Rodríguez took a swipe at the U.S.’s own human rights record in a joint press conference, implicitly referencing Ferguson and other flash points of racial injustice in the United States.

Indeed, in Cuba, amidst anticipation of a possible post-embargo windfall, a lively debate is afoot over just what the new U.S. policy really means. One group of government loyalists seems convinced that the United States’ goal remains regime change by commercial or economic means. Before a recent congress of the Communist Youth League, the youth organization of Cuba’s Communist Party, Cuban academic Elier Ramírez Cañedo warned against the deleterious impact of popular U.S. media, whether the content appears on state television (which already broadcasts bootlegged episodes of Friends) or is circulated via the illegal file swapping service known as “the Package.” Similarly, hardline powers within the Cuban state rebuffed Google Ideas’ offer to install a mobile wireless infrastructure for the nation, free of charge. “There are some people who want to give [the Internet] to us for free,” said Second Vice President José Ramón Machado Ventura, “…but to penetrate us and do ideological work for a new conquest.” Cuba may still end up collaborating with the Silicon Valley giant, but its own state-owned telecommunications company will play a role in any deal.

The clash of interests is also notable in the agricultural sector in which U.S. companies are already active. Since 2000, U.S. producers have been allowed to export foodstuffs to the island. The trade reached a high of $710 million in 2008, but fell thereafter as a result of Cuba’s lack of hard currency reserves. After December 17, U.S. industry groups formed the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba to recover and expand their market share. But in addition to importing U.S. goods, Cuba desperately needs to increase its own agricultural output. Between 60 and 70 percent of the island’s food supply already comes from abroad. Overtures to the Cuban government from U.S. producers, therefore, have increased concern among Cuba’s small-scale private farmers and cooperatives that they could be crowded out. Perhaps reflecting these fears, Cuba’s imports of U.S. food products actually decreased by 37 percent in the first half of 2015.

Finally, in Miami, there has been as much skepticism as outright support for Washington’s bold Cuba pivot. On December 17, the Cuban American congressional delegation pledged to roll back the rapprochement if possible. In reality, more and more past supporters of U.S. sanctions are jumping ship. Although the old guard failed to thwart normalization, other skeptics have resigned themselves to the fact that it will go forward. In turn, they have begun resisting the change in another way—by making anti-imperialist arguments, which, ironically, is essentially the same line held by the Cuban Left to which they are politically opposed.

For example, on a recent episode of the Miami-based television show, Arrebatados, political analyst Frank Resillez bitterly described the United States’ new strategy toward Cuba as “basically a process of colonization…We are going to colonize Cuba again, just like the Spaniards did, just like the Soviets did for thirty years…Cuba, de facto, is already a colony of the United States because it lives off the remittances of the exile community.” Several days before, blogger Isabel Estrada Portales denounced the Obama administration’s strategy toward Cuba as fundamentally “neoliberal” because it is based on the premise that “a market economy can change the antidemocratic essence of the Cuban regime.” Such arguments may appear baseless or exaggerated. Yet the belief in the power of business alone to transform Cuban society—trumpeted by anti-embargo advocates like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—can indeed sound suspiciously like dollar diplomacy. Ironically, then, anti-Cuban government holdouts in Miami now share similar concerns with government loyalists in Havana, who are worried about being overrun by U.S. goods.

A colleague of mine recently told me about a friend of his living in Havana who had once said sarcastically that "Cuba is in style." It's true that Billy Gibbons, the guitarist of the American rock band, ZZ Top, recently announced a forthcoming “Afro-Cuban” album with an appropriately cheery faux-Spanish title: “Perfectamundo.” And that Demeter, a New York-based fragrance company just named one of its perfumes “Cuba.”

But his sarcasm highlighted an uncomfortable reality: In light of all the buzz, most Cubans are still waiting to see the impact of better relations on their wallets. Those without a foothold in Cuba’s tourist economy or private sector still find it difficult to afford basic goods. In a small city in Matanzas province, two hours east of Havana, pork recently cost 40 Cuban pesos (roughly $2.00) a pound. Salaries in the state sector, though, still average only 600 Cuban pesos (roughly $30) a month.

Of course, restored diplomatic relations and greater trade ties may very well help Cuban society as a whole and significant numbers of Cubans on both sides of the Florida straits cautiously see embassy openings as a sign of hope. But the change also raises as many questions as answers. There are still tough issues such as compensation to U.S. businesses for the properties it owned in Cuba that were nationalized at the start of the Cuban Revolution. Likewise, Cuba is seeking damages for the cumulative effects of U.S. sanctions. In the meantime, the triangular jockeying between Washington, Miami, and Havana for influence and attention can seem far removed from many average citizens’ immediate concerns. “We may have embassies,” wrote one Havana resident recently for the website OnCuba, speaking to the pent-up frustrations of Cuban youth, “but ten hours of Internet still cost the same as a full month of work.”