Is the Cold War against Cuba over?

January 27, 2015

In December, the U.S. and Cuban governments announced plans to re-establish diplomatic relations, an enormous shift after more than 50 years of now-hidden, now-open warfare that included U.S. invasions, naval blockades, sabotage, assassination attempts and economic strangulation. Samuel Farber, the author of numerous books on Cuba, including Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment, was interviewed by Lance Selfa about these developments and what their consequences will be.

WHAT DO you see as the main reasons for the thaw between the U.S. and Cuba at this time? Give us a sense from both the U.S. side and the Cuban side.

I THINK there were factors that pushed this development on both sides, although the timing was open. Certainly the end of the Cold War, and the withdrawal of Cuba from Africa around the same time, downgraded the importance of Cuba in U.S. foreign policy, to the degree that it was barely mentioned in any of the strategic studies the Defense and State Departments published in the last couple of decades. So that relaxed the pressure from the old Cold War point of view.

There's also the fact that American capitalists were increasingly in favor of trade with Cuba. In 2000, the U.S. approved legislation exempting the export of food processing and agricultural goods from the economic embargo of Cuba, and Archer Daniels Midland, Tyson Foods and several other U.S. corporations got into trade with Cuba. There are a lot of companies, with the exception of the right-wing fringe among capitalists, who are in favor of that.

A mural near Museo de la Revolución in Havana

Also, the Pentagon has for some time been in favor of resuming relations. They have regular meetings with the Cuban authorities to discuss the logistics of the Guantánamo Bay naval base, drug interdiction and other issues.

Last but not least, the importance of the right wing Cuban exiles in Miami has declined. The Dade County area still has three Cuban-American right-wing members of Congress, but support for their politics has declined, and the composition of the Cuban community has changed quite significantly.

The majority of Cubans and Cuban-Americans in Southern Florida today are people who arrived after 1980. And that majority is growing as more Cubans arrive. At least 20,000 to 30,000 Cubans are arriving in the U.S. every year, and the older generation is dying away. Nevertheless, that generation still retains a great deal of control over the media and the political system, because they're wealthier people.

All these factors on the U.S. side have contributed to create a situation where politicians found it appropriate for all sorts of reasons to move on the issue of Cuba.

From the Cuban side, the country faces a pressing economic situation, with a tremendous lack of investment. The Cuban economy minister estimated that the country needs about $2 billion a year to achieve a takeoff. Cuba reinvests capital at half the rate of the rest of Latin America, and productivity is low by Latin American standards. Economic growth has also been very low in the last few years, at slightly over 1 percent in 2014.

So all of those things created a situation in which both sides were open for a change in the relationship. And with the 2014 elections done, Obama saw that this would be the perfect political moment to do it.

CAN YOU characterize the extent of the opening of diplomatic relations? As I understand it, Obama can do certain things by executive order, but Congress would still have to repeal the Helms-Burton Act. Can you tell me what some of the limitations of the arrangement would be at this point?

THE HELMS-BURTON Act, which Congress and President Bill Clinton approved in 1996, forbids any economic activity between the U.S. and Cuba--for example, American corporations investing in Cuba. That’s forbidden by the law.

Obama has made small indentations in the periphery of what the law covers to relax both the political and the economic relationship between Cuba and the U.S. For example, he was able to liberalize remittances from Cuban-Americans in the U.S., which are expected to increase from $1.5 billion a year to over $2 billion in the coming year. So there will be at least a 25 percent increase in remittances during 2015. He was able to do that, but the heart of the problem is that full economic relations between Cuba and the U.S. are still forbidden by Helms-Burton.

It's up to Congress now to amend, change or repeal the Helms-Burton Act. There are a significant number of Republicans, such as Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who are in favor of doing that. Whether there will be enough Republicans and Democrats to do it remains to be seen. Some Democrats, like Sen. Robert Menendez from New Jersey, are dead-set against this, because Menendez is a Cuban-American who has been allied with the most right-wing elements in South Florida's Cuban community for many years.

It's not a clear-cut Democrats-versus-Republicans issue. It cuts across the party lines, and I have not yet seen any numerical assessment of how many Republicans and Democrats are willing to go for repeal. That remains to be seen.

WHAT WOULD it mean for Cuban-Americans who have family in Cuba if Helms-Burton is kept intact and not repealed?

THE MODIFICATIONS around the edges of the Helms-Burton Act made by Obama have significantly changed the situation for Cuban-Americans. For example, they can now send a pretty much unlimited amount of money to close relatives, like parents, sisters or brothers.

Travel to Cuba has been liberalized on the Cuban side and now on the American side, so there are bound to be increasing numbers of people visiting. There were quite a few visitors already, especially since the Cuban government began allowing Cuban-Americans to bring their relatives in Cuba to hotels. So Varadero, which is the principal resort in Cuba, is full of Cubans whose rooms are being paid for by their relatives in Miami who come to visit.

So a lot has already changed, and it will change even more now. But there will also be things Cuban-Americans won't be able to do.

For example, the Cuban-American Fanjul brothers, who are major sugar mill owners in Florida and very hostile to the Cuban government, have made a turn toward supporting economic relations between the two countries. They went to Cuba and talked with the Cuban government, but they won't be able to bring in millions of dollars and open a new, modernized sugar mill or refinery in Cuba. That would require the repeal of Helms-Burton.

MANY ON the left have characterized this opening as a victory for the Cuban people. How do you see it?

I ALSO see it that way in the sense that re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba is a blow against the notion that the U.S. has the right to impose its preferred socio-economic and political system on Cuba—and if Cuba doesn't accept it, then the U.S. can punish them economically, and not just through the mechanism of market forces, but by political extra-economic means.

Keep in mind that this was an economic embargo/blockade, not the free market, that created misery for the Cuban people. Neoliberalism is supposed to defend the unfettered forces of the free market. But this was political power interfering with the market and imposing penalties on Cuba—in other words, totally outside what bourgeois neoliberalism is supposed to allow as legitimate.

So to this extent, it's a defeat for those who think the U.S. should have the power and the right to approve a foreign government and foreign economic system—and if it doesn’t, then it can punish them through extra-economic means. In that sense, there's no question—this is a victory.

THE STATE Department is sending a delegation to hold high-level talks in Cuba in January, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced he is going to lead a trade mission. What can we say about that?

I GUESS that all of these government missions to Cuba are going to significantly increase Cuban tourism in the next year! Right now, there's a Democratic congressional delegation visiting Cuba, Gov. Cuomo is planning to go there, and U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker is also planning to go to Cuba soon.

I just saw a declaration signed by very important politicians and businesspeople—including George Shultz the former Secretary of State under Ronald Reagan—essentially pushing for normalization of relations with Cuba. They don't explicitly talk about repealing or modifying Helms-Burton, but they pretty much imply it. It's signed by other establishment figures, like Bill Richardson, the former New Mexico governor, UN ambassador and Energy Secretary. So obviously, there's a big push in official U.S. politics and business to move toward normalization.

WHAT IMPACT will the re-establishment of U.S.-Cuba relations have on Latin America? I'm thinking mainly about Cuba hosting the talks between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas, as well as Cuba's close relationship with the left-wing government in Venezuela. What impact will this have on the broader role of the U.S. in the region?

ONE OF Obama's considerations in re-establishing relations with Cuba was changing the U.S. posture in Latin America and removing a continuing source of irritation--and a significant one--in Latin America against the U.S. I think that was very much part of the calculation.

In that sense, it will be easier, in a particular sort of way, to deal with Venezuela and other countries in the hemisphere--particularly those with center-left governments, some of them less radical like Ecuador and some more radical like Venezuela. It will be easier for the U.S. to confront those countries if the Cuba issue is neutralized.

I'm not suggesting, as some people do, that Cuba is going to diminish its support for Venezuela and the other center-left countries in Latin America. That's not going to be the case as long as the present circumstances remain. But it will make it easier for the U.S. to deal with those countries.

I think that the foreign policy considerations were part of what Obama factored in. This was also the case with people like George Shultz, who signed petitions calling for a normalization of relations. This was definitely part of the equation.

DO YOU think this opening is going to inaugurate a process of political change in Cuba itself? If so, in what direction, and does the U.S. care one way or the other?

I THINK that's a longer-term question. In the meantime, there's no question it's a victory for the Cuban government. As a matter of fact, the Cuban government had the gall to attack dissidents on the grounds that they were endangering new relations with the U.S.—like the case of performance artist Tania Bruguera, who tried to have a show in Revolution Square and was prevented from doing so and arrested. Government spokespeople had the chutzpa to accuse her of disrupting the resumption of relations with the U.S.

Before, the accusation was that dissidents were playing into the hands of the blockade. But now, if you dissent, you're playing into the hands of disrupting relations with the U.S!

That’s the short term. But in the medium and longer term, I believe the opening with the U.S. will undermine the legitimacy of the government, because you can only continue to claim for so long that the economic problems in Cuba are the fault of the embargo—especially if Helms-Burton is significantly modified or repealed,

THE CUBAN government is pretty enamored of the economic model of China or Vietnam. Do you think that's where it would like to head? And given what you just mentioned about the possibility of political change, is that viable?

I THINK that the government is aiming for this. By talking about the Vietnamese and the Chinese model, we don't mean that Cuba can draw on the countryside like China did to beef up its industrial labor force. The rural population of Cuba is only 25 percent of the total. That's very different from China and Vietnam. We also don’t mean specific economic policies.

But what I do think the government would like is the model of a social system where there's a one-party state and a lack of democracy, but, at the same time, allowances for substantial private investment--particularly foreign investment in important industries--with the state reserving for itself the commanding heights of the economy, as it has in China. Banking in China is one example—so far, it remains monopolized by the state.

The problem with Cuba has been that the government moves two steps forward in that direction, and then takes a step back. I suspect the reason is that there's bureaucratic resistance to moving in this direction—because a lot of bureaucrats are going to lose their power under that model. They’re going to lose the bailiwicks. Raúl Castro has tried not to be too disruptive of bureaucratic power since he took over—so in that sense, it has been a contradictory process.

I SAW that Cuba recently opened an export-processing zone in Mariel. Do you think the economic planners are hoping to follow this model, like in Vietnam or Macau?

SO FAR, the Mariel port hasn't been successful. The Odebrecht Organization, a very large Brazilian corporation, invested a tremendous amount of capital in renovating and modernizing the port of Mariel, which includes a free trade zone. They claim they're waiting for the building of the Panama Canal to be finished, which will be necessary in order for big boats to use Mariel as a stepping stone to come to the States or to Europe.

In fact, at this point in Cuba's economic development, the country hasn't much to offer by way of industry or agriculture. What it has to offer, and it's already heavily engaged in, is services.

For example, there's a tremendous enthusiasm for tourism. In 2014, Cuba had 3 million tourists. It's conceivable that by the end of 2016, there will be 4 million tourists a year. That's going to put tremendous strains on the infrastructure of Cuba and on the hotels, so it might be likely that European capital will be interested in increasing its stake in the hotel business in Cuba. The industry needs a lot more hotels, and more hotels requires a whole infrastructure.

There's also the possibility of biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. There are already one or two projects involving the joint development of drugs produced by American corporations in Cuba. That might expand, but I think it’s a much longer-term prospect.

WHAT DO you think are the most important points readers should take away?

OVER THE medium to long run, I think there will be a challenge to the predominant ideology of the Cuban government, which justifies poor economic status by pointing to the U.S. blockade. That may facilitate the development of resistance in Cuba, and a certain liberalization that was already happening--not democratization but liberalization—will help. This would make it possible for people to protest more openly than before.

In China, even though you have a one-party state, tens of thousands of workers’ protests occur every year, which has led to increases in wages—to such a degree that, among other factors, some companies are citing wages as the reason they are pulling out of China. Thus, Bangladesh has become a center of garment production because China is no longer seen as "affordable."

To the extent that liberalization may create more room for people to organize themselves and protest, that will be a positive development.

Transcription by Karen Domínguez Burke

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