A Review of Debating U.S.-Cuban Relations: Shall We Play Ball

by | Apr 15, 2012

Debating U.S.-Cuban Relations: Shall We Play Ball Edited by Jorge I. Domínguez, Rafael Hernández and Lorena Barbería New York and London: Routledge, 2012.

Here we go again—yet another moment in history when the U.S.-Cuban relationship, frozen (more or less) since early 1961, could be lurching toward sanity. What makes this moment special, even hopeful, are simultaneously promising changes in both countries, identified in each case with a new leader: Barack Obama in the United States and Raúl Castro in Cuba. How relations might change, at what speed, and with what effects on the two countries is the subject of this remarkable book. Remarkable, because like its 1989 predecessor, U.S.-Cuba Relations in the 1990s, Cubans from Cuba contribute a lot to the conversation.

 
Remarkable also because, unlike the often awkward exchanges between Soviet and U.S. scholars in the Cold War era, one could scramble the names of the authors of the chapters in this book and few who did not know them would notice. Cubans and their U.S. counterparts (plus two Canadians and a German working in Spain) look at the same evidence, assess it with identical analytical tools, and come to remarkably similar conclusions: that normalization of relations would benefit both countries, that policymakers in Cuba as well as the United States would need to overcome domestic political constraints to move ahead, and that fundamental asymmetries in power and resources complicate matters enormously.
 
There are differences of perspective and goals, barely visible at times and possibly crucial. However, the fact that issues of policy and context can be discussed (despite the title, there’s not much debating here) in the detached language of modern social science and policy analysis is testimony to the deep cultural and intellectual ties that a half century of relative economic and diplomatic isolation has failed to break. The structure of the book—mostly paired essays on the same topic, one by a Cuban, the other by a U.S. or other non-Cuban scholar—is ideally suited to reinforcing this point. Two of the heroes (heroines, actually) of the struggle to maintain scholarly and academic exchanges despite the often frustrating obstacles—Milagros Martínez Reinosa (University of Havana) and Sheryl Lutjens (California State University, San Marcos)—contribute lucid chapters to the volume.
 
The book begins with a brief introduction that deftly frames the volume, written by Jorge Domínguez and Rafael Hernández, who together edited the 1989 volume mentioned above. The remaining chapters assess state-to-state relations, national security and terrorism (three chapters on this), the role of the European Union in U.S.-Cuban relations, the potential economic impact of ending the embargo, emigration/ immigration issues, and academic and cultural exchange.
 
Rafael Hernández, Cuba’s best-known political scientist, contributes an opening chapter of uncommon sophistication and analytical power. He argues that in the U.S.-Cuban relationship, “confrontation and cooperation [are] not incompatible phenomena or successive stages but… coexistent and, to some degree, mutually consistent” dimensions (p. 9). He then addresses, head on, the key issues: what is preventing normalization, what political changes in the United States and in Cuba would be needed for relations to improve, what about the democracy and freedom issues, what areas of cooperation are possible. The paired essay by Jorge Domínguez contributes a penetrating review of the history of past efforts to improve relations and sketches five possible but not equally plausible “scenarios” that could lead toward normalization in the 2010s.
 
The two chapters conclude in fascinating parallel. Hernández points to “favorable circumstances” in which “an apparently small step can unleash a march that exceeds all expectations.” Domínguez argues that with so much human capital (partly due to the Revolution’s successes in education and health), “Cubans should not fear the future” (p. 49).
 
The three essays on security issues complement each other well. Peter Kornbluh’s short piece provides a fascinating glimpse into the 1960s and 1970s when “Castro-hater” Richard Nixon sought the cooperation of the Cuban government to end an epidemic of airline hijackings. The 1973 agreement took only a few weeks to negotiate. Terrorism, of course, remains an issue in U.S.-Cuban relations, but as both Carlos Alzugaray Treto and Hal Klepak point out, this is not because Cuba engages in it. It is an issue because the U.S. State Department refuses, against all evidence to the contrary, to stop including Cuba in its list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” Both essays point to potential areas of future collaboration.
 
The European Union speaks with many voices and for that reason, according to Eduardo Perera Gómez, “lack[s] significant capacity to influence U.S.-Cuban relations…” (p. 100). Both Perera and German scholar Susanne Gratius analyze the special role that Spain has played both in its bilateral relations with Cuba and in setting the tone for EU-Cuban relations. As Cuba embarks on significant internal changes, the EU is poised to play a key role in encouraging and even aiding the Cuban government to stay the course. The Obama administration, unlike its predecessor, has not intervened to discourage the EU’s opening to Cuba, despite multiple pressures to do so.
 
Canadian Archibald Ritter and Cuban Jorge Mario Sánchez Egozcue analyze the potential impact of a “normalization” of economic relations between the United States and Cuba. Both countries would benefit economically, of course, but in Sánchez’s words, “what happens in the future of bilateral economic relations depends largely on Cuba’s capacity to change itself and on how the United States reacts to those changes” (p. 162). Ritter looks at the impact of ending the embargo on Cuba as it is now (modest, but positive) and on a Cuba where economic reforms have gone much deeper (huge, as in China or Vietnam). Sánchez’s brilliant essay reaches a similar but more nuanced conclusion, worth quoting at length: “Cuba’s prosperity does not depend on having economic relations—good or bad—with the United States. It depends on Cubans’ capacity to reinvent their country,” adding that good economic relations would be a “welcome complement, and the negative side could be managed without recourse to extraordinary sacrifices…” (p. 177).
 
The excellent essays by Lorena Barbería and Antonio Aja Díaz on U.S. immigration policies provide two perspectives on the history of alternating conflict and cooperation, trends in population and emigration, and prospects for better cooperation in the future.
 
All the chapters focus on how closer and more harmonious relations might emerge from the current stalemate. The editors’ strategy for the volume mirrors the approach both countries would need to take to improve relations: ignore the various elephants in the room and try to get something positive accomplished before any of them wake up. The editors have succeeded admirably, though in nearly every essay one can hear the great beasts stirring in their sleep.
 
Cuba’s political system shields the country from U.S. economic and political dominance and for that reason is unlikely to change soon. Is the United States ready to deal with Cuba in the same way that it does with China or Vietnam? Perhaps, but as Hernández observes, “Nothing indicates that the U.S. government would be content with a form of market socialism; it seeks nothing less than a capitalist restoration” (p. 11). Unhappily for the U.S. government, normalization of diplomatic, economic, migratory, and cultural relations is not likely to bring regime change in Cuba. But it could be good therapy for U.S. politicians and policymakers, who still have trouble seeing the small countries of the Caribbean and Central America as independent.
 
 
Can’t Get Enough? For more, here’s an interview with Jorge Dominguez:
 
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Spring 2012Volume XI, Number 3

John H. Coatsworth is the Provost of Columbia University. He served as the Director of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies from its founding in 1994 until 2006.

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