The end of the “Cuban Revolution”?

Havana, Cuba (openDemocracy) – As far as the outside world is concerned, Cuba began a rapid process of political and economic change on 17 December 2014. On that day, the United States and Cuban governments surprised everyone by announcing their agreement to establish full diplomatic relations as soon as possible and end their fifty-four-year history of mutual antagonism.

It was an announcement which immediately sparked a series of assumptions about Cuba’s domestic situation. Certainly, most casual observers seem to have assumed that recognition has also ended the equally long US economic embargo, opening up the Cuban market to American tourists and capital. Hence, it is also widely assumed that Cuba’s return to capitalism, and thus a more “Americanised” system, is only a matter of time – something welcomed by those who, since 1991, have seen Cuba as an anachronism, but regretted by others. What has helped fuel these assumptions is the awareness that, in 2018, when Raúl Castro’s realises his promise not to serve more than two terms as elected president, Cuba will no longer be governed by a Castro. Hence, whichever way you look at it, the end of “the Revolution” is assumed to be nigh.

But all is by no means what it appears. To begin with, an exact chronology of the diplomatic relations broken in 1961 would mark 1977 as the year the Carter administration and Cuba agreed a partial recognition, setting up interest sections in third-party embassies, with a view to eventual full relations – an aim then derailed by the Reagan administration which entered the White House in January 1981. In this strict sense diplomatic relations did not restart in 2015.

A cautious process

That said, the agreement’s symbolic significance should not be underestimated. It has started the process of ending over five decades of bitter and even violent hostility and given a powerful statement, to Cubans and Americans alike, that the time for ending an outdated and counterproductive cold-war policy had come. Indeed, Barack Obama’s decision to act when he did (faced with the imminence of a Republican-controlled Congress) was designed to set off an unstoppable momentum for change which would eventually affect the embargo. Hence, the agreement was accompanied by three measures, under presidential decree, two of which breach the embargo (and may yet be challenged legally): allowing US banks to back their cards in Cuba, US internet companies to trade in cables and equipment, and Cuban-Americans to send unlimited remittances to their relatives in Cuba.

The first caveat, when judging the changes, must be the embargo’s survival. The point here is simple: it has long been a largely political measure, initially to punish the Cuban government for nationalising US property without compensation, but eventually ensuring votes in the electorally crucial state of Florida. Indeed, it was precisely that political dimension which, through the Helms-Burton legislation of 1996, stipulated that sanctions could only be lifted with a two-thirds majority of both houses of Congress. Thus, whatever the momentum for change, the institutional and political opposition to ending sanctions makes the end of the embargo some way off.

The second caveat is Cuban caution. For, although both government and population welcomed – and, through the Vatican, sought diligently – the diplomatic breakthrough, there are no illusions. Havana has a long list of issues to be settled before any genuine “normalisation”, especially a huge claim for reparations for the fifty-four years of sanctions and the history of US-tolerated sabotage, the return of the Guantánamo naval base, and the repeal of the Cuba Adjustment Act of 1966, which encourages a steady flow of asylum-seekers across the Florida straits. Another demand (to remove Cuba from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism) was recently met by Washington.

A third possible obstacle can be added. Although Raúl Castro seems certain to stand down as president in February 2018, he also has another role in the Cuban system: as first secretary of the ruling Communist Party. Moreover, as it seems likely that the party’s next national (five-yearly) congress will be held in April 2016, and equally so that Raúl will seek a second term as party leader. He will thus remain in a position of some authority, oversight, or even control, until 2021 – and that in turn will give the pro-embargo lobby in the United States all the ammunition they need to keep the legislation in place.

The reason for any such decision by Raúl would be that, having struggled against considerable internal resistance since 2007 to push through a programme of reform (euphemistically called “updating”, or “modernisation”, of the system), he is unlikely to stand by and watch that still fragile process attacked, under a president lacking his historic legitimacy. Thus, having spent several years trying to weaken the party and stop it interfering with government – because the party was the source of resistance to government-led reform – Raúl now seems likely to be leading a party that acts to oversee the government. That would also create a situation not seen since 1976: a perhaps significant division of powers, with the presidency and party leadership held by different people.

With all this taken into account, it should be recalled that the familiar media dichotomy of “hardliners vs reformers” does not always enlighten. For one thing, Raúl’s motto since 2008 may have been sin pausa pero sin prisa (“without stopping but without haste”), yet attention abroad has been paid to the former imperative (of relentless reform) while ignoring the latter (of the need to proceed cautiously). For another, Raúl – having negotiated his way doggedly to limited success since 2008, and this in a system which has always beencharacterised by a process of constant negotiation – is painfully aware of the nuances of Cubans’ situation. In particular, he understands that, while many Cubans hanker for economic change, a great many also fear that such change might involve throwing out the baby (of the Revolution’s basic principles and social benefits) with the bathwater. Thus “reform” has been, and will remain, a matter of two steps forward and one step back.

A new-old model

At everyday level, changes are already evident in Cuba, especially in Havana (though much less so outside the capital). These mostly emanate from the reforms preceding the US détente rather than from any (still unrealised) post-agreement influx of tourists or capital, other than emigrants’ remittances. Thus, for example, the recent freeing of property law (allowing buying and selling of houses), together with those remittances, has already produced a flurry of much-needed refurbishment of the capital’s housing stock. The encouragement of self-employment has (again thanks to remittances) seen a flourishing of small street-level one-person businesses, artisan activities and private restaurants, helped by Cubans’ greater access to capital and goods, not least through the post-2012 freedom to travel abroad.

Yet no one should expect an eastern European-style process of massive privatisation, for the Cuban government makes it clear that the key sectors of the economy and welfare state should remain firmly in state hands. Raúl has made it clear that, as he put it, he was not elected in order to destroy “the Cuban Revolution”, making it likely that – at least on his watch – the basics of the post-1961 system will remain largely intact.

That could well entail an attempt to create a model somewhat resembling a return to the “Revolution” which existed before the cold war intervened (from both sides) to shape, and to some extent limit, the process in one particular direction. This would see the state decisively leading an economy with a large sector of small-scale private ownership, in agriculture and urban commerce. Indeed, such a model would not be too far from what most Cubans probably hope for at this stage.

Balint Földesi, Flickr, Creative Commons Cuba Camagüey, Cuba

Balint Földesi, Flickr, Creative Commons
Camagüey, Cuba

If something like that came to pass, one thing would be clear. However much the political system might be broadened in the coming months and years (many speculate that 2016 might see more competitive local elections, and even a renaming of the party, to accommodate such a broadening), there will be no end in the short term to the current single-party system, at least as long as the threat from a United States still seeking “regime change” is perceived to be real. After all, US secretary of state John Kerry greeted the opening of the full US embassy in Havana with the observation that the end of Cuba’s isolation was driven by the United States’s preference for achieving the same aims as before but by different means. So the watchword for those observing the Cuban system in the coming months and years must remain: sin pausa pero sin prisa.

This report prepared by ANTONI KAPCIA for openDemocracy.