October 21, 2020

In Cuba, Change at a Caribbean Pace

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336010By Alex Brooks & David Prodger From Real Clear World

Tell someone you’ve recently visited , and you’ll almost always get the same response: “I’d love to go too. Before it all changes.”

Conventional wisdom has existed for years, among travel-junkies and casual foreign policy buffs alike, that the McDonaldsácion of the communist island is imminent. You could hear it repeatedly among hostel-hopping backpackers in Central America 12 years ago. “D17,” the Dec. 17, 2014 commitment by Presidents Obama and Castro to improve U.S.-Cuba relations, has intensified the expectation – concern, for some – that Cuba will soon revert to its pre-1959 identity: as a cultural and economic extension of the Floridian peninsula.

On the basis of a recent visit we made to Havana, we would not instinctively agree.

In our roles as British consul-general in Miami and as foreign affairs attaché at the in Washington, we’ve been exposed this past year to intense, often passionate debate in the about Cuba’s future, and the proper role for American foreign policy. We went to Cuba to test the analyses and assumptions made by both sides of the debate. (If you’re reading this post, you’re probably familiar with the parameters of the debate; we won’t rehash them here) We later tested the mood of the Cuban-American community in Miami too.

But what business is it of ours anyway, you may ask?

Well, for one, it’s our job to understand U.S. foreign policy in and of itself. The change in Cuba policy is a case study for the Obama administration’s broader approach to international relations.

Second, the United Kingdom shares many of the same foreign policy goals as the United States. We work with Cuba to encourage trade and sustainable economic growth; we co-operate on tackling transnational criminal and security threats; and we seek progress on human rights. A shift in relations between Cuba and its biggest neighbour will directly impact UK foreign policy objectives.

And third, the shape of U.S.-Cuba relations has regional implications. The United Kingdom’s deep ties to the Western Hemisphere predate the founding of the United States. More recently, our Latin-American “Canning Agenda,” and Prime Minister David Cameron’s announcement in Jamaica of momentous British re-engagement with the Caribbean, have brought renewed focus and dynamism to these relationships. U.S.-Cuba tension has affected the region’s diplomacy for 50 years; a healthier relationship would be a boon to the United Kingdom’s own interests. For precisely this reason, on Oct. 27 the United Kingdom, along with 190 other U.N. members, again voted in favour of the General Assembly’s annual symbolic resolution against the U.S. embargo.

So back to our visit. There we found ourselves, suited, booted and perspiring slightly, in Cuba’s seaside capital. Havana was charged with excitement for Pope Francis’s visit, and abuzz with the expectation of change. Aided and guided by our colleagues at the British Embassy, we dove into Havana’s political, entrepreneurial and activist scenes, to see what we would find.

We spoke with a range of people from right across Cuban society: government, academia, civil society, private business, NGOs, and the diplomatic corps. We discussed politics: Would Castro trial modest democratic reforms? What did the Communist Party of Cuba’s () next generation of leaders want for the country? Economics: Would the travails of Cuba’s current patron, Venezuela, have the same impact as the demise of its previous one, the Soviet Union? How would the loosening of U.S. trade and investment proscriptions countervail this, and what opportunities and limitations did private entrepreneurs face? We also discussed diplomacy: What did the PCC want from its rapprochement with Washington – and when, and on what terms?

Suffice to say, we heard a range of answers, both across and even within different parts of society. But to us, the pivotal question appeared to be this:

How does President Raúl Castro hope to manage the leadership transition in 2018?

One civil society contact, opposed to the U.S. embargo but also to “D17,” alleged that President Castro and the PCC’s elders were nervous about the transition, fearing their nascent reforms could be undermined. Were their experiment to prove unsuccessful, their credibility – and thus the credibility of their anointed successors – would be called into question. Political turmoil, and rapid change, would ensue. Washington’s diplomatic opening had (unhelpfully, they felt) ameliorated this pressure, conferring renewed legitimacy on the government and ensuring reform would happen on the Castros’ terms.

Others, in the budding private sector, disagreed. There was a sea-change afoot: Cuba’s economy was quietly restructuring, with the tacit acquiescence of both the current and future PCC leadership, and would continue regardless of politics. And with economic change, slowly but surely, would come broader societal change. Opening to the United States had catalyzed this process.

Government officials conveyed little urgency. The United States’ outreach was welcome. The embargo was not. Cuba would move at its own, relaxed pace, and cede little. After all, they alleged, the bilateral strains existing between the two governments were entirely of Washington’s making.

So what to make of it all? Two things were clear. One was the inherent uncertainty of the immediate future. There are myriad political, economic, cultural, and ideological forces pulling in multiple directions, from both within Cuba and from outside. Some coexist within the PCC and government themselves. Cuba’s leaders will need time to reconcile with these forces, even as the forces themselves evolve. And many of the country’s original dividing issues – what economic, political and diplomatic models to pursue; the treatment of political opponents; even personal and familial feuds – remain. Anyone peddling a crystal-ball insight into Cuba’s future is naive. The country is complex, and its leaders’ minds are impenetrable.

The other, however, was that change of some sort is inevitable. There are, to be sure, powerful actors on both sides of the Florida Strait who seek to maintain the status quo. Among those who do want change, their visions for it – its extent, shape and speed – differ. But there is an unmistakable groundswell, spanning all segments of society both at home and in the diaspora, pushing for something new. Improvements in U.S.-Cuba relations – not just between governments, but also between the entrepreneurs, journalists and activists now travelling regularly between Havana and Miami – appear irreversible enough to make broader change feel more likely, and more real. The old “government-dissident” divide is blurring as officials and businesspeople cautiously feel each other out, testing new boundaries and hedging their bets on the future. They are collectively forming a new center of gravity, both within Cuba and spanning the Florida Strait. This is leaving the extreme views on both sides looking increasingly out-of-step with what most Cubans want, and what they increasingly believe is possible.

This month, with the anniversary of “D17,” much ink will be spilled proclaiming the success or failure of the policy. But Havana wasn’t built in a day, and fundamental societal change doesn’t happen in a year. Change is coming – probably at a characteristically tropical pace.

(AP photo)

Alex Brooks is the Second Secretary, Asia Pacific & Emerging Powers, at the British Embassy in Washington. David Prodger is the British Consulate General in Miami.

For more on this story go to; http://www.realclearworld.com/blog/2015/12/in_cuba_change_at_a_caribbean_pace_111628.html

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