Alan Gross: Castro's prisoner
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    The Alternative in Cuba

    The Alternative in Cuba
    December 27, 2014
    The resumption of US – Cuban relations is a real victory. But Cuban
    workers face renewed economic liberalization with little political opening.
    By Samuel Farber*

    US President Barack Obama announces restored diplomatic relations with
    Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014.
    HAVANA TIMES — On December 17, 2014, Washington and Havana agreed to a
    pathbreaking change in a relationship that, for more than fifty years,
    was characterized by the United States’ efforts to overthrow the Cuban
    government, including the sponsorship of invasions, naval blockades,
    economic sabotage, assassination attempts, and terrorist attacks.

    The new accord set free the remaining three members of the “Cuban Five”
    group held in US prisons since 1998 and, in exchange, Cuba freed the
    American Alan Gross and Rolando Sarraf Trujillo, a previously unknown US
    intelligence agent imprisoned on the island for almost twenty years, in
    addition to over fifty Cuban political prisoners. Far more consequential
    are the resumption of official diplomatic relations and the significant
    relaxation of travel restrictions and remittances to Cuba.

    The agreement covers the political normalization but not the full
    economic normalization of relations: that would require Congress
    repealing the Helms-Burton Act, signed into law by President Clinton in

    Past failures
    There were previous efforts to resume political and economic relations
    between the two countries since the United States broke ties in early
    1961. The most important was undertaken by the Carter administration,
    which in pursuing an initiative originally undertaken by Nixon, renewed
    secret negotiations with the Cuban government in 1977, when the Cuban
    exile right-wing in South Florida was still a negligible political force.

    The two countries made mutual concessions that included the
    establishment of diplomatic “interest sections” in Washington and Havana
    and the lifting of the ban on tourist travel to the island, a
    restriction later reinstated by Reagan in 1982. In the wake of the
    Carter-Castro negotiations, the Cuban leader released most political
    prisoners, of which about 1,000 left for the United States, and in 1979,
    Cuban-Americans were, for the first time, allowed to visit their
    relatives on the island.

    Yet the reconciliation process came to a halt. While the presence of US
    troops throughout the world was taken for granted by Washington as an
    imperial entitlement, the deployment of Cuban forces in Africa became an
    obstacle to the normalization of relations. Many in the US blamed
    Castro’s foreign involvement as the decisive reason for the collapse of
    the talks both under Nixon and Carter. But there were other more
    important factors at work.

    For one thing, the Carter administration was itself divided on the
    question. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance supported the resumption of
    normal relations with Cuba, while Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s powerful
    national security adviser, opposed the move. But it was domestic
    political developments in the US unrelated to Cuba, which ultimately
    stopped the process.

    The American right was becoming agitated over the negotiations
    concerning the transfer of the Panama Canal back to the Panamanians. In
    September 1977, Carter suspended negotiations with Cuba until after the
    Canal treaties were ratified by the Senate.

    The suspension turned out to be indefinite. Faced with attack over
    Panama, the Carter administration decided to shore up its right flank by
    adopting a tougher posture on Cuba, a stance that was shortly after
    reinforced by the victory of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, and
    by the political weakening of the Carter administration as a result of
    the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Iranian hostage crisis.

    American capitalists approve
    Why did Obama succeed where previous US administrations failed? More
    than anything else, the end of the Cold War, the departure of Cuban
    troops from Africa, and the less militant stance of Cuba in Latin
    America have, through the years, qualitatively downgraded the importance
    of Cuba in American foreign policy, as witnessed by the fact that
    practically all US government strategic studies in the last two decades
    don’t even mention the island.

    At the same time, however, the American capitalist class, except for its
    most right-wing fringe, has come to support not only the reestablishment
    of diplomatic relations, but even more so the elimination of the
    economic blockade. This has been the position adopted by the US Chamber
    of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers in the last
    several years, and also the general stance taken by the business press.
    Business columnists have been arguing, with more than a grain of truth,
    that massive American investment and trade with the island would
    “subvert” and eventually overcome the Communist economic system, as has
    been happening in China and Vietnam.

    Moreover, after exemptions to the US economic blockade allowing the
    export of agricultural goods and certain processed goods to Cuba were
    authorized by the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of
    2000, firms such as Cargill, Archer Daniel Midland and Tyson Foods got
    involved in trade with Cuba. After the current December 17 agreement,
    other corporations, such as Caterpillar and Pepsico joined in supporting
    it. During the last several years, dozens of business people and
    politicians, particularly from the South, Midwest and Southwest have
    been visiting the island and discussing with the Cuban government future
    economic prospects especially if the blockade is repealed.

    Reflecting the attitude of their business constituents, many Democratic
    and Republican politicians, such as Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, have
    been advocating political and economic relations with Cuba. It remains
    to be seen whether these forces will be strong enough to amend, if not
    repeal, the Helms-Burton Act and allow for a full normalization of
    economic, as well as political, relations with the island.

    The exile community is changing

    As the Cuba issue lost importance after the end of the Cold War, and as
    major business sectors have begun to favor economic and political
    relations with the country, the right-wing leadership of the Cuban exile
    enclave in South Florida remains the only political force firmly
    defending the blockade. Its political clout was particularly important
    in a closely divided state like Florida, where Cuban-Americans account
    for around 5 percent of the electorate.

    But the conservative exile generation of the sixties has been dying out
    and by now the growing majority of the Cubans residing in Florida came
    to the United States since the eighties. In contrast with the older
    exiles, many of these people regularly visit the island and are more
    concerned with the welfare of their Cuban relatives than with Cuban
    exile politics. It is no wonder then that public opinion polls have
    shown that a majority of the Cubans and Cuban-Americans residing in
    Florida favor a change in policy leading to full relations with the island.

    Nevertheless, many of these people are not yet citizens and affluent,
    conservative Cubans still have great power over the media and political
    system. The three Florida representatives in Congress of Cuban origin
    are still right-wing Republicans strongly committed to the blockade.

    And yet the fact that Barack Obama won 48 percent of the Cuban vote (and
    larger proportions among younger Cubans) in the 2012 elections is a
    clear indication of the political trends among Cuban-Americans away from
    right-wing positions on Cuba. Moreover, as the Cuban-American
    sociologist Alex Portes has indicated, the Cubans who have arrived since
    1980 generally come from modest class backgrounds in the island and are
    hardly distinguishable from other Latin American immigrants in
    socio-economic terms. One wonders about the future of the Latin American
    “model minority.”

    The Cuban road to China

    For its part, the Cuban government has been intent to find a way to
    resume diplomatic relations with the United States even though this may
    in the long run undermine its legitimacy as it won’t be able to blame
    the blockade for continuing political repression and economic woes.

    Ever since Raúl Castro assumed power — informally in 2006 and formally
    in 2008 — he has been moving towards adopting the Sino-Vietnamese model,
    meaning a state-capitalism that retains the monopoly of political power
    through the Communist Party, and that controls the strategic sectors of
    the economy, such as banking, while sharing the rest with a domestic and
    foreign private sector. But this has been a contradictory road where the
    Cuban government has tried to “have its cake and eat it too,”
    accompanying every economic change with restrictions that limit their

    Despite the rosy picture drawn by Castro sympathizers, such as Emily
    Morris in New Left Review, the results of the Cuban government’s new
    policies have been meager and unable to finally overcome the long
    economic crisis that has gripped the island since the Soviet Union’s
    collapse. The real wages of state employees, who still constitute the
    great majority of the labor force, had only reached, in 2013, 27 percent
    of their 1989 levels.

    Since 2008, spending on education, health, social welfare and housing
    have diminished as a proportion of the state budget and gross domestic
    product. Furthermore, for the last several years economic growth has
    been low (1.2 percent in 2014) and capital investment has been a meager
    10 percent of the GDP compared with the average 20 percent for Latin
    America as a whole.

    Not surprisingly, Marino Murillo, Cuba’s Minister of the Economy, has
    said that the island needs at least 2 billion dollars a year in
    investment to achieve an economic takeoff. This is the key to Castro’s
    willingness to resume relations with the United States, especially in
    the light of the serious political and economic problems that Venezuela
    (Cuba’s principal ally) and Russia are currently facing along with the
    relative decline in growth of the Chinese economy.

    Castro has nothing to lose, since even if the Helms-Burton law is not
    amended or repealed, the Cuban economy is bound to benefit by the
    liberalization of travel and remittances recently decreed by Obama. For
    the Cuban leader, any benefit he obtains from the agreement may be the
    lever he needs to vanquish the resistance in his own bureaucratic
    apparatus to the full implementation of the Sino-Vietnamese model in the

    For his part, Obama must surely be conscious of the opportunity to
    reassert American political influence and its economic power in Cuba,
    aside from other real political benefits to be gained by this new
    agreement in Latin America and the rest of the Global South.

    The alternative in Cuba
    Independently of the considerations that led the governments of Cuba and
    the United States to reach this agreement, it is a major gain for the
    Cuban people.

    First, because it acknowledges that the imperial power of the US was not
    able to coerce the imposition of its socio-economic and political
    system, handing a victory for the principle of national
    self-determination. It is up to Cubans and Cubans alone to decide the
    destiny of their country. Second, because in practical terms, it can
    improve the standard of living of Cubans and help to liberalize,
    although not necessarily democratize, the conditions of their political
    oppression and economic exploitation, making it easier to organize and
    act to defend their interests in an autonomous fashion against both the
    state and the new capitalists.

    This has been the case of China, where thousands of protests occur every
    year to protect the standard of living and rights of the mass of the
    population in spite of the persistence of the one-party state.

    Contrary to what many liberals thought right after the Cuban Revolution,
    the issue was never whether the end of the blockade would lead the
    Castro brothers to become more democratic. That possibility was never
    and is not in the cards, except for those who believe that the
    establishment of Cuban Communism was merely a reaction to American
    imperialism instead of what Che Guevara admitted was half the outcome of
    imperialist constraint and half the outcome of the Cuban leaders choice.

    What is real is the likelihood that the end of the blockade will
    undermine the support for the Castro government thereby facilitating the
    resistance and political formulation of alternatives to its rule.

    That Cuba will be free from the grasp of US imperialism even if the
    economic blockade comes to an end is not likely. The more “normal”
    imperialist power broadly experienced in the Global South will replace
    the more coercive and criminal one of the blockade era, especially if a
    successful alliance develops between American capital and the native
    state capitalists of the emerging Sino-Vietnamese model, as it happened
    in China and Vietnam. Even at the purely political level, there are many
    conflicts that are clearly foreseeable, like, for example, one that was
    left unmentioned in the Obama-Castro agreement involving the return of
    revolutionary exiles, such as Assata Shakur, to prison in the United States.

    With the passing of the historic generation of revolutionary leaders
    within the next decade, a new political landscape will emerge where
    left-wing opposition political action may resurface and give strength to
    the nascent critical left in Cuba. Some may argue that since socialism
    of a democratic and revolutionary orientation is not likely to be on the
    immediate agenda, there is no point to put forward such a perspective.
    But it is this political vision advocating for the democratic
    self-management of Cuban society that can shape a compelling resistance
    to the economic liberalization that is likely to come to the island.

    By invoking solidarity with the most vulnerable, and calling for class,
    racial and gender equality, a movement can build unity against both the
    old and the emerging oppression.

    (*) Published originally in Jacobin Magazine.

    Source: The Alternative in Cuba – Havana –