Cuba playing all or nothing amid urgent need for change

Analysts consulted by EL PAÍS believe the country is at a critical moment in history and a policy of rapprochement with Washington will facilitate much-needed reform

A couple in Revolution Square in Havana.
A couple in Revolution Square in Havana.Yander Zamora (EFE)

Continuity and change were the main themes of the 8th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC), celebrated in Havana in April. After 62 years at the helm, Raúl Castro and the old guard of the PCC officially stepped aside to make way for a new generation of leaders headed up by the new First Secretary Miguel Díaz-Canel, whose mission is to enact the necessary economic reforms to make the Cuban model sustainable without changing the political system while guaranteeing the PCC’s oft-alluded to “historical continuity.”

“The challenge for Díaz-Canel is that most Cubans are more interested in change than in continuity,” US academic William LeoGrande wrote in a recent article in World Politics Review. LeoGrande, a specialist in Latin American politics and US foreign policy, is well-respected within Cuba and co-authored Back Channel to Cuba, a book about the history of the secret negotiations between Havana and Washington stretching from the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower up to the Barack Obama era.

The US must not push Cuba toward Russia again, which could lead to old and dangerous alliances being renewed
Carlos Saladrigas, director of the Cuba Study Group

Like the majority of businesspeople, analysts and politicians consulted for this article, LeoGrande believes that the most important game for Cuba will be played at home. Independently of what the US might or might not do, it is the authorities in Havana who for their own interests need to carry out profound changes to their economic model and open spaces for democratic participation in society. This is a view held by Joe García, Obama’s secretary of energy, and the director of the Cuba Study Group (CSG), Carlos Saladrigas, a leading figure in the Cuban exile movement in Miami, among other experts.

In any case, both have actively and passively lobbied the US administration of President Joe Biden to take decisive steps toward rapprochement with Havana, as Obama did, and facilitate the evolution of ties between the two countries. Up to what point should, or can, these changes go? How far should continuity reach? Can the US be of help if it takes the lead or would it be better for Biden to wait in the wings and see what happens in Cuba, without lifting the sanctions imposed by former president Donald Trump, even if that encourages a siege mentality? Has Cuba got time to wait? All of this is open for debate and there is broad consensus that the answers to these questions will be revealed in the coming months.

Biden has been in office for over 100 days and “so far he has not lifted even one of the 240 sanctions imposed by Trump in the most aggressive blockade ever carried out,” Carlos Fernández de Cossío, the head of the US department of Cuba’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, tells EL PAÍS. On two occasions Washington has stated that Biden is not Obama and that Cuba is not a priority for the new administration. What is true is that today remittances to Cuba are restricted, the majority of daily flights are grounded, US visits to Cuba are prohibited, the US Embassy in Havana remains shuttered and the Helms-Burton law – which codified the regulations of the US blockade against Cuba – is still in force. Furthermore, Cuba remains on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism, Trump’s final pen stroke and enacted days before he left office.

A family watches the news of the 8th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba.
A family watches the news of the 8th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba.ALEXANDRE MENEGHINI (REUTERS)

“These are some of the things that need to change as soon as possible,” says Cuban-American academic Arturo López-Levy. “If Biden wants to encourage the concrete reforms already approved in Cuba and promote transparency and internal debate in the patriotic Cuban camp, he needs to reopen dialogue in a drastic manner. It is impossible to deny the disastrous legacy of Trump.”

Saladrigas concurs: “It is important to broach the subject of Cuba as quickly as possible for two fundamental reasons. The first is humanitarian, given that the pandemic, the sanctions imposed by Trump and the ridiculous economic policies of the Cuban government have led the country to the brink of economic collapse, with a serious shortage of food and medicine, which could precipitate a new migratory crisis,” he says. The second, according to Saladrigas, is “strategic.”

“The US must not push Cuba toward Russia again, which could lead to old and dangerous alliances being renewed. Furthermore, beyond fostering the desired changes in Cuba, the continuity of hostility will only serve to further entrench the Cuban government by intensifying the abuse of human rights and making the already arduous task of enacting reforms more difficult and costly.”

In February, the CSG presented the Biden administration with a document in which it advocated for the US to seek the full normalization of relations without asking for anything in exchange, but maintaining its stance against the absence of democracy in Cuba while also supporting those who are asking for greater economic and civil liberties. According to academic and former Cuban diplomat Jesus Arboleya, while the CSG claims “that its proposals do not seek to promote regime change in Cuba, it is difficult to assume that this is not the genuine interest of the majority of its members.” Despite this, he adds, “the scenario the CSG hopes to achieve is perhaps the best possible one for co-existence between the two countries, where a high level of antagonism still prevails.”

Although Cubans think we are the center of the universe, it’s not the case. We are not a priority
Joe García, former energy secretary under Obama administration

But it is the home front that matters most in Cuba. Everyone is agreed on this, including Cuban government employees, who talk about economic changes if not political ones. The latest Congress of the PCC opened the door for greater private initiative, the creation of small- and medium-sized businesses and wider margins of independence for state enterprises. But will that be enough?

Prominent Cuban economists, some residents on the island (Juan Triana, Omar Everleny, Ricardo Torres) and others abroad (Julio Carranza, Pavel Vidal, Pedro Monreal, Mauricio de Miranda) have been warning for some time that economic reforms are urgent and must be sweeping, not merely cosmetic, or the Cuban economy will crash. Díaz-Canel admitted as much recently when he said there was no time to think “in the long term,” although history and statistics demonstrate that the pace of reform in Cuba is traditionally rather slow.

Neither is there an abundance of time to reflect on what Biden might do. López-Levy argues that internal policy calculations are what have up to now impeded rapprochement. “The president has a Senate divided in half and a House in almost the same situation. Biden cannot afford to alienate a single senator, including the powerful Democrat Bob Menéndez, who has made sanctions against Cuba a non-negotiable issue.”

Menéndez, adds López-Levy, “occupies a key post as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is a leading advocate for migratory reform, one of the principal election promises and priorities of the Democratic legislative agenda.”

Obama’s former energy secretary, the Cuban-American Joe García, agrees, knowing very well the balances that the Biden administration must seek to maintain. “Although Cubans think we are the center of the universe, it’s not the case. We are not a priority.” In any case, García believes rapprochement with Cuba will happen sooner or later. “The promises Biden made were simple, forceful and will be kept: to eliminate the limits in remittances, open up travel, reestablish consular activity…”

Will it be enough? Probably not, the majority of experts consulted acknowledge. The demand, which is almost a plea, is unanimous: that Cuba has the nous to “do what needs to be done” and that the lives of Cubans are improved. And also that the US has the nous to lift sanctions on the island that are “immoral” and preventing the issue from moving forward.

English version by Rob Train.

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS