[Larry Catá Backer is W. Richard and Mary Eshelman Faculty Scholar Professor of Law and International Affairs at Penn State Law.]
On December 17, 2014, the Presidents of the United States of America and of the Republic of Cuba announced an intention to move toward the normalization of relations between their countries. The two statements reflected the quite distinct conceptual frameworks from which they originated, and the aspirations and tastes of the elites whose approvals were a necessary predicate for such action. These frameworks can coexist unchanged only in the abstract, and are well reflected in the Presidential statements. Yet both views are so distorted by their own ideological self-references that each continues to evidence both the self-destructiveness and the irrelevance that has marked the policy of each against the other since the early 1960s.
Cuba remains fixated on the history ending moment of the triumph of its revolution of January 1, 1959, which marked not only the sweeping away of the old order, but also the installation of a new order that required no further improvement. The Revolution required defense and protection, not development or implementation. One can follow the rhetoric and policy of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP) since the 1960s as one long arc of efforts to maintain, protect and sustain a status quo set on that day that marked the moment of the triumph of the Revolution. This “freeze-time” conceptual baseline also characterized certain elements of the Cuban-American community for whom Cuba ceased to exist in time from the moment of the flight of the Batista regime. Cuba, politically at least, never moved from a revolutionary to a post-revolutionary society. Its state and party apparatus, unlike those of China and Vietnam, never transitioned from revolutionary to party in power. This Cuban policy of defensiveness is as much reflected in its state constitution as it is in the subtext of President Raul Castro’s speech announcing normalization. Its cultural, economic and social dimensions are deeply stamped onto Cuban society and governmental policy.
It is here that Cuba has been its own worst enemy. Its culture is tethered to January 1959 (and tourists seem to enjoy this museum experience even as younger generations of Cubans chafe at the institutional manipulations that force them to sterile reproduction especially for the benefit of tourists). Its economic model is tethered as well to the central planning system of Eastern European satellites of the 1970s. The CCP appears to have become no more than the caretakers of an ideological museum; its bureaucracy, still substantially loyal to Fidel Castro’s brand of European Stalinism, now has become a more potent enemy of Cuban reform than anything hurled at Cuba by the U.S. or by U.S. public intellectuals and politicians now arrayed against normalization. This is no idle supposition. The Cuban legal and administrative system appears to be moving toward rules based standards. But it is applied only through the exercise of discretionary authority. Every action requires application, review and permission. Substantial legal reform will be necessary before many of the benefits of normalization may be realized. Cuba’s hostility to global markets, and to the framework of globalization, will continue to hamper efforts to plug into global finance and commerce even without the impediments of the U.S. Embargo. Until the CCP cease fighting their revolution and start governing forward Cuba will continue to face problems that normalization will not solve.
For its part, the US remains fixated on the vapors of an old imperial project from 1898. That old imperial project is augmented by the perversities of a strain of elite Cuban-American policy orientation that is also fixated on January 1, 1959, which has become a part of the ossified mixture of policy premises that have marked U.S. thinking about Cuba since the early 1960s. Like their Cuban counterparts, some influential Cuban American elites have frozen Cuban policy to that revolutionary magic moment. References to the now nearly mythological Cuban Republic before 1959 serve as a touchstone for plans that are grounded in teasing out variations of “what-ifs” all projected from 1959 and on erasing the events between then and now. Even as Cuban American culture, interests, sensibilities and tastes change, the structures of Cuban American policy remain stuck in “restoration” sensibilities. That restoration-centered view dovetails nicely with the ideologically driven foreign policy predilections of the United States, and its cold war era ideological internationalism. For the U.S., that still means regime change. We are told that the reason for the change in policy is that the embargo had not worked. We are not told that the U.S. has abandoned the objective—indeed, President Obama’s statement made the point quite clearly that the opposite is true. American citizens, businesses, and civil society, are now encouraged to descend on the Republic, with the sense that these interactions themselves will produce movement toward change. Yet that is precisely what the Cuban state fears most. That element of control of the internal choices of a nation that the United States has sought to own, control or manage since the mid 19th century, provides a troubling foundation for normalization. But it is not surprising. Still, for the U.S., the benefits of normalization may have little to do with Cuba itself. For the President, it represents another point of confrontation with his Republican Party adversaries. Along with changes to immigration, normalization serves as a provocation to his political rivals and a dare to challenge his actions either by legislation or in the courts. In either case, the differences between the political parties can be more sharply drawn for the upcoming presidential elections and the Republican Party painted as obstructionist. U.S. business may remain wary as long as the 1960s expropriation claims remain unresolved. Yet they will be warier of Cuba’s current inability to finance its transactions than by past business wrongs.
This is not to minimize the importance of the changes to come. The influx of people from the U.S. will restore a balance of interaction cut off in the early 1960s. The influx of goods, brought in the suitcases of thousands of travellers, will effectively create secondary and wholesale markets for goods (though distorted by the technologies of import on a micro scale) that the Cuban bureaucracy had been able to resist even as Raul Castro sought a more vigorous approach to economic reform in 2011. Miami may continue to serve as the thought and culture leader for the greater Cuban community, including those in Cuba, though now that cultural relationship will be more open and may run more effectively in two directions. Cultural exchanges will drive development of the arts in both states in new directions with less connection with a preservationist ideal. Normalization will put U.S. relations with its Latin American neighbors on a sounder footing. It will liberate U.S. policy from the burden of Cuba as the US. seeks to deal with major Latin American states. It might reduce the impact of the socialist regional trading block. For Cuba, normalization brings the possibility of stability during transition. It might stem the tide, now about 1,000 able bodied persons a day, from a nation whose demographic profile looks more like that of Japan than of a developing state. And it will provide hard currency and goods for secondary markets that Cuba needs badly. And it may provide the discipline of markets to Cuba without threatening the core socialist premises on which the state is now organized (this last point to the chagrin of many in the United States). But mostly, perhaps, it will permit Cuba to develop as it chooses, however much that may conflict with the interests of others, without fear of direct U.S. threat.
However, the changes that normalization might bring will come despite rather than because of changes in public policy. Cuba and the U.S. remain their own worst enemies in the process. Powerful internal forces in both states may well derail the move. Normalization threatens, for both, the foundations of their foreign and domestic policies relative to the other. It will require Cuban-U.S. relations to move back into time and beyond the asphyxiating grip of January 1959. Cuba will have to undertake the difficult task of reshaping its political culture so that it becomes forward moving again, even within the parameters of Marxist-Leninist organization. That may require dismantling its antiquated economic system in favor of something more sustainable. The United States will have the equally difficult task of reducing its interference in the internal affairs of its neighbor. The U.S. might do better to pursue the pragmatic business of business rather than the business of regime change in its relations with Cuba. With a maturing architecture of business and human rights, developed out of the U.N. Human Rights Council, conformity to international norms in its economic activities might serve as a better venue for developing human rights based behaviors than the ideologically driven mania for photo-op elections that seems to have fouled U.S. foreign policy these last several decades. Undertaken slowly, in measured and rational steps, it may be possible to make good the small promise set out in the normalization messages of both Presidents.