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Obama’s New Cuba Policy: McDonald’s in Old Havana?

by Marce Cameron on March 2, 2015
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“I want to see Cuba before everything changes” is how many reacted to Barack Obama’s surprise December 17 announcement that he would restore diplomatic relations with Cuba — severed by the US in 1961 — and urge Congress to lift the US blockade. My interests were piqued by this development during the completion of my Master of Arts dissertation on Cuban state socialism in terms of the influences of ‘statist utopianism’ and Sovietisation. Seeing Cuba for oneself can only be encouraged, but those who fear that it will soon be transformed by American tourists, US corporations and commercialism need not rush to book flights.

Hordes of American tourists and a hotel boom to accommodate them may well be inevitable, but a US corporate invasion is not. Fears or hopes that Obama’s new Cuba policy will unleash a US corporate takeover and cultural re-colonisation are unfounded. Such fears or hopes are based on the dubious assumption that what holds back the tide of capitalist restoration on the Cuban archipelago is, ironically, the US blockade.

Were this assumption to hold Caribbean water, we would have to credit the US blockade with Cuba’s tenacious independence and dogged commitment to socialism. That would be absurd: the blockade is a gross violation of Cuba’s right to self-determination. It has succeeded in undermining, distorting and stunting Cuba’s socialist project. This is why Cuba’s socialist government has always demanded the lifting of the blockade.

DSCN2952In reality, what holds back the tide of capitalist restoration that presses in from the outside (and wells up from within) is not the US blockade. It is the Cuban Revolution. Obama knows this, which is why he pledged that lifting the blockade — which, he pointed out, has failed to bring US-style “democracy” to Cuba — will be accompanied by US efforts to subjugate Cuba by other, less confrontational means. One such means is co-opting the emerging small business sector.

Whether Obama’s new approach turns out to be more effective than the policy of siege and isolation remains to be seen. As Jesús Arboleya from the Universidad de La Habana argues, it is far from inevitable that the owner of a pizza shop, a flower stand or a beauty salon will abandon their commitment to Cuban independence, social justice and solidarity for the siren song of US imperialism. These are allies of the working class and can make a positive contribution to Cuba’s socialist transitional economy.

What is clear is that restoring US-Cuba diplomatic relations and lifting the blockade will not, in and of itself, allow US corporations to dominate Cuba once again. Nor will it trigger a wave of privatisations of Cuba’s socialist state property, or lead to an end to Cubans’ constitutional right to health care and education at all levels free of charge.

That would require the demolition or degeneration of two institutional pillars of the Cuban Revolution: the Cuban Communist Party and the socialist state it leads. This is precisely what the blockade has failed to achieve.

DSCN2989The failure of the blockade to destroy the Revolution — and Obama’s decision to act on the recognition of this failure — is a triumph of Cuba’s working people over half a century of brutal siege by the mightiest empire in history. Rather than recognise this inconvenient truth, Obama repeated the myth that the blockade has failed to bring about Iraq-style regime change because it has “provid[ed] the Cuban government with a rationale for restrictions on its people.”

The myth that the Revolution is propped up by the blockade is widespread among both liberal critics and admirers of socialist Cuba. In reality, the blockade has failed to bring about regime change for two fundamental reasons: millions of ordinary Cuban citizens remain deeply committed to the Revolution’s core principles; and the calibre of Cuba’s communist leadership. Obama wasn’t going to congratulate his adversaries.

“Proudly, the United States has supported democracy and human rights in Cuba through these five decades … primarily through policies that aimed to isolate the island,” Obama claimed in his December 17 speech. This is demonstrably false. The blockade’s real objectives have nothing to do with democracy or human rights. A US State Department memo dated April 6, 1960 explains: “Every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba … to bring about hunger, desperation and [the] overthrow of [Cuba’s revolutionary] government.”

This has always been the blockade’s core objective, but admitting it would oblige the US — morally if not legally — to compensate Cuba for the US$117 billion in damages to the Cuban economy caused by the blockade in the 54 years to 2014, according to Cuban government estimates.

DSCN3029Obama neither acknowledged nor apologised for acts of terrorism and sabotage for which the US state is directly or indirectly responsible, among them more than 600 plots to assassinate Fidel Castro and the blowing up of a Cuban civilian airliner in 1976 with the loss of 73 lives.

Announcing that he had ordered a review of the State Department’s classification of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism — a status that obliges the US to impose financial sanctions — Obama stressed that the review “will be guided by the facts and the law.” This was a tacit admission that branding Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism is politicised and baseless.

The fact that the Cuban and US governments engaged in a discreet dialogue prior to Obama’s announcement does not mean that Raúl Castro’s government is caving in to US pressure and negotiating the terms of the Revolution’s surrender. In return for Obama’s pledge to restore diplomatic relations, Cuba has made no concessions whatsoever to long-standing US demands for ‘free’ elections and a ‘free-market’ economy.

Some conservative critics of Obama are incensed at the unilateral nature of the US policy shift. The US should use the blockade as a bargaining chip, they argue. Any steps towards the resumption of diplomatic relations and any easing of the blockade should be tied to Cuban concessions to US demands for changes to Cuba’s political system and property regime.

Unlike his conservative critics, Obama recognises that this approach hasn’t worked for more than five decades. Cuba refuses to negotiate on matters of principle and has proved immune to bullying and blackmail. Given this, the only realistic approach is a unilateral one.

Marce Cameron
Marce Cameron recently completed a Master of Arts (Research) thesis, ‘Statist Utopianism and the Cuban Socialist Transition’, under the auspices of the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney. As President of the University of Sydney Cuba-Venezuela Solidarity Club, he led the Cuba-Venezuela Youth and Students Revolutionary Tour in August 2010. His blog, Cuba's Socialist Renewal, features original translations and commentaries on the debates and changes underway in Cuba today. He is President of the Australia-Cuba Friendship Society (Sydney).
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  • March 2, 2015 at 8:40 am

    Marce, I think you make a good point that it is not the blockade that is holding back a tide of capitalist restoration, and that the end of the embargo and initiation of US-Cuba relations won’t bring about a wholesale conversion to free-market capitalism. I don’t believe, however, that this has much to do with the Cuban communist party or with millions of Cubans supporting the revolution. I think that Cubans have a much more critical relationship to the state and economy than that, and we outside Cuba must recognize and support the efforts of those hoping to transform society from within the revolution. The party is not one of those channels for change, although it may be responsive to the demands of some actors within Cuba.

  • March 2, 2015 at 9:34 am

    Hi Sujatha, thanks for your feedback. It seem to me that, on the one hand, Cuba’s epic resistance has a lot to do with the Cuban Communist Party and the support of millions of Cubans for the Revolution. Without a strong base of enduring popular support, no government could have withstood the pressure that Cuba has been under since the demise of the Soviet bloc. On the other hand, I agree with you that Cuban citizens’ relationship to the state and the economy is nuanced, and that many of those who support the Revolution are striving to transform it. In my thesis (see link above) I do recognise and support these efforts: my thesis is a Marxist critique of Cuban state socialism and a modest contribution to the Cuban and wider debate on how to revitalise Cuba’s socialist project. It seems to me that the Cuban Communist Party is indeed a conduit for pro-socialist change. To cite just one example, its Economic and Social Policy Guidelines (the sole English translation I’m aware of is my own – see my blog) gives the green light to cooperative management of small and medium-sized state-owned enterprises. This move away from state-centrism has long been advocated by what I term the ‘socialisation’ paradigmatic pole of contemporary socialist thought in Cuba. The inclusion of this opening to non-agricultural cooperatives in the Guidelines was not so much a response to the demands of this or that sector (e.g. pro-socialist intellectuals) but a belated recognition of the need to move away from a state-centric model.

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