Kiss and Make Up? (III): Obama’s Cuban Vacay

Cubans observe Air Force One approaching Havana Airport on March 20th. Source:

Hell froze over. A sitting President of the United States has visited Cuba for the first time since the 1920s. It is the biggest step yet toward the normalization of relations that Cuba and the US began late in 2014. With this visit, Cuba has been officially elevated to the rank of countries the US has fundamental disagreements with but is still willing to talk to face-to-face and even seek cooperative agreements with, just like with China and Russia. Obama’s first-ever presser in Cuba, next to Cuban president Raúl Castro, proclaimed the new state of affairs.

Politico came up with a rather interesting play-by-play account of that presser, hailing it as “how Obama set a trap for Raul Castro”. Maybe, because according to that account Castro was visibly uncomfortable when a CNN reporter asked him about Cuba’s political prisoners, to the point that Castro ended the presser by saying that it was “not right” for him to be asked about the issue. And Obama was all too happy to join in on the fun and push Castro into the limelight. El Nuevo Herald, the Spanish-speaking, Castro Brothers-criticizing official organ of Miami’s Cuban diaspora, passed judgment on that awkward day: Raúl Castro is not ready to field questions from anyone who is not on his government’s pocket. But what is more interesting to me is that both presidents have declared to the whole universe that they agree to disagree on stuff like human rights and political freedoms. In a retort to Obama, Castro said that it was inconceivable in Cuba for the government to not guarantee health care, education, food security, and social security; and that civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights were interdependent and indivisible.

So we now arrive at a conundrum reminiscent of The Odd Couple: can two countries with different and deeply held views on democracy make normalization work without driving each other crazy?

On the Cuba side, there is nothing wrong with demanding that socioeconomic equality be a foundation of the political system because it does have an effect on whether citizens feel that they are truly equal under the law, are wholly included in the political process, and receive the same opportunities to reach the peak of human promise. That is the spirit of the Cuban Revolution, and no one can blame it for that given the sordid state of Cuba before 1959. On the other hand, Raúl Castro did not explain what exactly did he mean by “political freedoms”, but it is obvious that dissent is not one of them. The reasons are not difficult to find if we put a little intellect into it. Insofar as socioeconomic equality is advertised to Cubans as both the ultimate source of all legislation, Cuban socialism can be considered to be similar in logic to the Rousseauian general will. And because the general will is always right, since it represents the very best interest of every single member of a political society, it is always better to obey a law that has its source on the general will, even if you disagree with it. If necessary (actually, as a matter of course in Cuba), citizens must be forced to obey such laws, as Tania Bruguera, “El Sexto”, the Ladies in White, Heberto Padilla, and Oswaldo Payá can tell. In short, speaking in Rousseauian terms, Cubans must be forced to be free. The problem, of course, is the same one that affects traditional religion: when ideas become an omnipresent and infallible dogma that does not countenance disagreement with it. In those conditions of forced groupthink, the economic, social, and cultural rights that the Cuban Revolution claims to have achieved, for all their validity, are pointless. That realization, by the way, is nowhere to be found in the minds of the people who support the Cuban political system under a “different strokes for different folks” take on democracy, which Laurence Whitehead describes in his chapter from the third edition of Constructing Democratic Governance in Latin America as being infamously susceptible to use as a way to tolerate retreats from (liberal-)democratic values. One point for the US.

On the US side, neither is there anything wrong with asserting that no government, not even the most progressively-minded, should assume that individuality is superfluous, especially when it comes to the impact of government decisions on ordinary lives. This why the right to disagree with the government – the same right Cuban supporters in the US take advantage of when making their case against the embargo but seemingly cannot conceive Cubans on the island to have – matters. But we also know, unless we are actually living under a rock, that the US has ghastly flaws: rising income inequality, African-Americans killed by (usually White) police officers or overpopulating prisons, health care being a good on the market and not a right, politicians being sold to the highest bidder thanks to easily circumvented campaign finance rules, etc. In such conditions, the political freedoms for which the US is globally famous are equally pointless. Moreover, it is also a historical fact that despite rhetorical artillery barrages like Ted Cruz’s, the US does have a negative historical record in Cuba, among other counts, by virtue of negating its full independence after the Spanish-American War and enlisting the help of people like Fulgencio Batista, the dictator whose henchmen beat and tortured Cruz’s father. And when scandals like Abu Ghraib and the Guantánamo detainees show up, or when Obama does not appear to hold all Latin American countries to the same human rights standard he holds Cuba to, Obama’s human rights “trap” is, in reality, a flimsy one. One point for Cuba.

Assuming that normalization will survive the upcoming change in administration and a new Congress, the fact that the US is treating Cuba now in the same way it treats Russia and China is more promising than 50 more years of the same old policy of antagonism so cherished by the GOP, the hard line of the Cuban diaspora, and even Democrats like Bob Menéndez. (Donald Trump would not follow along. He would probably bomb Havana and have Fidel Castro waterboarded.) But that promise means that both sides have high expectations to meet. The US must recognize that it did not play fair with Cuba in the past and, accordingly, still not take normalization as a Trojan horse for the kind of arm-twisting regime change it has tried to carry out in Cuba for a long time. It also has to recognize that there is nothing wrong with socioeconomic equality in and of itself and concede that the Cuban Revolution has a good point there. But in turn, Cuba must recognize that the totalitarian model, with its penchant for repressing society, now belongs in the dustbin of history and that there is nothing wrong with recognizing political individuality, because it is impossible to expect all citizens to agree to what the government will do to them. Cuba does not need to continue emulating the atmosphere of Donald Trump’s rallies (“get him out of here!”) by ostracizing an artist who utilizes art as a vehicle for political self-expression, a mother that wants her son released from jail or someone like this guy. The bushes that survive the high winds are the flexible ones, not the stiff ones. Besides, the generation of the Sierra Maestra is withering away, including Raúl Castro, who announced upon his re-appointment as head of state in 2013 that he will retire in 2018. It is time to rethink the Cuban Revolution, especially when so many Cubans simply want a better life for themselves without having to vote with their feet.

But however you slice it, hell did freeze over. I guess that means the Curse of the Billy Goat will finally be broken and Cubs will win the World Series this year.

“The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention.” (Red Smith, New York Herald Tribune, October 4, 1951)


Postscript (May 24, 2017): To be sure, by the time normalization was announced, Raúl Castro was already presiding over notable economic and institutional changes. Perhaps the most notable of them is allowing for more self-employment and relaxing existing regulations on the establishment of small businesses – something unthinkable when Fidel Castro ran the show. For all his propensity to get irritated when the foreign press grills him on human rights issues, Raúl is (and always has been) a pragmatist, unlike his ideologically-driven big brother. But he is also under pressure: lacking Fidel’s ability to keep the Revolution afloat by sheer charisma, Raúl has to demonstrate that good governance is not tied to any one man, but a standardized feature of the political system. In the light of increasing skepticism, the hopes aroused by normalization in ordinary Cubans (which are not reducible to simply changing the regime, though), and his impending retirement, Raúl’s mission is a critical one.

Also, the Cubs did win the World Series in 2016.

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