On Learning the Right Questions

The Changing Furture of U.S.-Cuban Relations

By Rafael Hernández

Whenever I am invited to speak about Cuba to audiences outside the country, I'm inevitably asked, “What’s going to happen when Fidel Castro disappears from the scene?” Curiously, when I talk about the United States in my own country, there is another inevitable question, “What will happen when the North Americans lift the embargo?”

These are both perfectly legitimate and relevant questions for the future of bilateral relations. At the same time, the questions reflect a problem that traverses the history of the relationship, and is customarily described as a “difference of perception.” In my opinion, however, the intention of each of the two questions points to something more revealing than a simple (and natural) difference in perspectives. It is not only a matter of what both sides identify as the cause or the nature of the conflict, as the factors that can be modified, of the uncertainties and fears associated with these factors and their possible alteration. These questions also reflect a way of representing the future, of constructing the future based on past history and anticipating how it plays out in the present, as an actuality. The image of this future, to express it in some form or other, slips away from us like those Indonesian shadow puppets that project constantly changing images on a screen: the same pair of hands that at one moment appear to be a profile of a horse suddenly are transformed into that of a rooster or a dragon.

We Cubans imagine the end of the embargo as an event that will take place at a precise hour of a specific day, when the president of the United States will appear on television and declare that from that moment forth, this policy that has lasted for almost half a century, will have ended for once and for all. This is a dramatic representation of this future, foreseen as a visual happening—that is, theatrical—something along the lines of John F. Kennedy’s tragic intervention October 22, 1962, that sparked the missile crisis with his announcement of the naval and aerial blockade of the island. According to this imagined vision of the end of the blockade, when this historical future that already preexists in our minds takes place, everything is supposed to begin to change.

Now then—what change are we talking about? Well, possibly we Cubans can expect to face a situation unlike anything that has been experienced in the last 46 years. The United States would have ceased throwing its weight around through its policy of economic isolation, a situation with which the majority of Cubans on the island have learned to live from the time they were born—I belong to the minority that can remember what it was like to live in a country without a blockade. This much longed for and awaited change will suddenly thrust us into a totally disconcerting and unexpected set of circumstances that encompass a new future. Let’s say that instead of preparing ourselves for the “surgical attack,” the “sudden and massive air strike” or “the invasion,” we are facing the imminent landing of a million gringo tourists at the José Martí Airport, including our relatives from Miami.

At the bottom of this Pandora’s box are not one, but several, difficult questions. Are we ready for this contingency? Will Cuban socialism resist the crush of this flock of “barbarians from the North”—as Colombian writer José María Vargas Vila described them—with their consumer crazes, their lifestyles, their cult of individualism, their mercantile mentality, their dollars? What could unite us with a single national will, if the imperial threat suddenly disappears? To what extent can we keep on being independent, determining our own policies, maintaining the course of our particular development project, imagining at the very least a socialism (or however one wants to call a better society) in Cuba, if we are standing at the edge of a huge sucking force generated by the greatest capitalist market in history, that happens to be—or so they claim—our “natural” market. And how can we avoid the noxious effects of all this, from only 90 miles away?

These powerful uncertainties can have the effect of making some believe that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t in terms of lifting the blockade and normalizing relations with this imperial neighbor. Paradoxically, it is simpler to struggle with this neighbor in his guise of Goliath than with this hypothetical incarnation of an ogre (not exactly philanthropic) that invites us to sit down at the dinner table in his castle. Personally, however, although I share some of those concerns regarding the costs of normalizing relations, I do not entirely concur with this narrative line about our future.

In the first place, I have my doubts that this dramatic announcement televised from the Oval Office proclaiming the end of the embargo is ever going to occur. There’s that lack of dramatis personae. In our imagination, the inevitable protagonist of this scene is a democratic and pragmatic president, capable of understanding the interests of the United States and of confronting the rightist Cuban-American lobby in Miami—a kind of Frankenstein cobbled together from the good-natured remnants of Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and, naturally, JFK. This personage, in whose utopian “second term” the golden opportunity to normalize relations with Cuba would finally arise, is a friendly ghost that although he appears necessary, no one has ever seen or knows if he exists. If he appears through some miracle, it’s most likely that he would neither have the time nor give the subject of Cuba the necessary priority nor have the willingness to pay the political cost of making this decision, that after all he could keep on postponing until his term was over.

It would be much more reasonable to expect that the Congress would be the body to make headway in the possible changes in the Cuba policy of the United States—that is as a matter of fact already happening. Unlike the executive branch, the legislative branch has interests opposed to the embargo that include both Republicans and Democrats and that represent the interests of agribusiness corporations, the pharmaceutical industry and tourism. In line with these same interests, the question of freedom to travel to the island appears to be the weakest chink in the blockade’s armor—as indeed the Cuban-American lobby and their allies have warned. In this fashion, the prohibition on travel might be brought as a case before the Supreme Court as a flagrant violation of the First Amendment. Paradoxically, free trade and North American freedom are two good and legitimate reasons for the senators, representatives and judges to order what no president would really want to: to lift the sanctions on Castro’s Cuba. This has nothing to do with recognizing the legitimacy of the Cuban regime, just a matter of respecting U.S. interests and values, and allowing trade and tourism to try to accomplish what the most varied resources—military, paramilitary, economic, diplomatic, propagandistic—have not been able to do over the course of four decades.

The clearest evidence of this other future is that today people on both sides of the Florida Straits have more interest in getting to know each other personally than in any other time during all these years. If the magnitude of this change is taken into account, one can see that already the wall of the embargo has begun to crumble. It will not be torn down overnight nor with sledge hammers, and even less, will its destruction lead to territorial reunification like that of Berlin. Nevertheless, the wall has already begun to disintegrate because of all the cracks that have been opening, and that makes the embargo seem absurd to more and more people every day. Strict Bush administration regulations have had short- term negative effects on bilateral exchanges, resulting in the persecution of ordinary U.S. citizens who come to ride bikes or stroll along the Havana boardwalk, who visit to donate pianos to Cuban art schools or to learn to dance Cuban son. Nevertheless, maintaining the policy of the blockade is an uphill battle.

The question should not be when it will begin to fall, but what we can do now to anticipate the consequences. The hothouse in which the system and the culture of socialism could flourish was shattered more than ten years ago. The negative impact of the growth of tourism, the growing gap in social equality, the presence of fashion and behavior foreign to socialism in everyday life is already sufficient to consider that challenges associated with a reencounter with capitalism do not belong to a faraway and improbable future.

Finally, the fundamental question is not even if we can resist the cultural onslaught of capitalism, but rather what a system (or the project of a system) is worth that cannot endure the merciless blast from the elements outside of its hothouse and flourish on its own. The system, the culture and the values of a possible socialism cannot be protected by an ideological condom, but through acquired immunities that permit it to survive even in the face of the virus coming from contact with the outside. This vaccination, this acquired immunity, has been taking place for 12 years now, not without cost, but still without showing signs of fatal illness.

Unnoticeably, we have entered into the terrain of the second question, the one that is most popular outside the island. Many accustomed to Cuba not being anything more than “Castro’s Cuba” can imagine that the disappearance of Fidel from the stage would turn everything upside down. That is, we must go back to where we started from, when he made his appearance, and history and the future took this “strange route.” An alternative answer—one, however, that is hardly ever heard outside the island—is that Raúl Castro will assume the presidency of Cuba and as a result, the question arises if the government of the United States would rather negotiate with Fidel’s brother. Is there any reason to consider this scenario any more likely? Unless someone out there thinks Raúl is a negotiator more inclined to make concessions to the United States—of which there is absolutely no shred of evidence—the bilateral relation will continue basically the same. In this way, the most plausible scenario of the so-called “transition” (post-Fidel Castro) does not provide us with much hope for bilateral changes.

I personally believe that the key to what can provide significance to this second question resides in the interpretation of the problems that the first question raises. In the last 15 years, Cuba has been the setting for change, much more so than the United States. Both societies have advanced towards a reencounter, although from very different historical experiences and political cultures. No discussion about what would happen between the two parties if Fidel Castro was not around can have much depth without understanding these changes and differences. Along these lines, a post-embargo Cuba would be much more filled with favorable scenarios—including progress in bilateral understanding—than a post-Castro Cuba that still awaited its oft-dreamed dialogue with the United States. It is difficult to imagine that the disappearance of Fidel by itself could wipe out—as if by the wave of a magic wand—the legacy of distrust and resentment, the attitude and the habit of command with which the United States has historically treated Cuba. In any case, the costs are those that (all) Cubans—including the new generations who will continue to be born under an endless embargo—will have to pay, continuing to mortgage the future of bilateral relations and reproduce resentment and mistrust.

Finally, a post-embargo Cuba could make a reality of the progress that some invoke to sell the concept of a post-Castro Cuba. The primary beneficiaries of a post-embargo Cuba will be the corporations nationalized in 1960, which are interested in restoring ties with the island, and the Cuban-Americans, who finally will find their path without obstacles to reencounter their fatherland, the country of their mothers and fathers.

All these different hands, like the Indonesian shadows, may shape a new bilateral future that doesn’ t look like the dragon, but rather like the rooster—the auspicious symbol, according to the Chinese traditional calendar, of work ethics, pioneering spirit and the quest of knowledge.

Rafael Hernández, a former DRCLAS Visiting Scholar (1995), is a political scientist living in Havana, who co-edited with Jorge Domínguez US-Cuban Relations in the 1990s (1989). He is the author of Looking at Cuba. Essays on Culture and Civil Society (2003) and the editor of Temas, a journal in the field of humanities and social sciences, which collaborates with the DRCLAS program of academic exchanges with Cuba.