Raul's Window

March 11, 2009

History has a special way of replaying situations that offer the opportunity to generate big unexpected changes. These windows of opportunity are usually brief and when not taken, they disappear. With Barack Obama as President of the United States new windows of opportunity are opening for Cuba and for the United States, but they are narrow and brief.

A president who won the elections under the motto of “change” would be obvious and sensible to change a policy that is old and ineffective and that has remained static for 50 years, a true relic left from the Cold War. In addition, President Obama will need to demonstrate to the world that he attempts to conduct his foreign policy in a manner completely different to that of his predecessor, and to show a commitment toward cooperation, dialogue and diplomacy. There are very few US foreign policy issues that are viewed more as residue from the old arrogant attitudes, and as irritant of the relationships with Europe and America than its policy towards Cuba. Its abandonment in favor of a respectful and constructive environment, based on the basic values and principles of the United States would represent for Obama a message with great symbolism, with little consequences for its political assets and would leave for him a legacy of historical proportions.

We know that during his electoral campaign Obama chose Miami, the center of the Cuban exile, to present his proposed policy towards Cuba, offering two elements of that policy. First, he would offer Cubans living in the United States the “unrestricted rights to visit family and send remittances to the island”, and second, that he would begin a diplomatic opening in order to establish a constructive dialogue with Cuba. The first one was to be expected. The second was surprisingly daring and without precedent in previous electoral campaigns.

Although the Cuban exile community continues its inexorable march towards moderation, it was unexpected that a democrat would win among exiled Cubans. Obama obtained 35% of the vote among Cuban voters (the highest level obtained by a democrat since 1976) and a clear majority of 65% among Cubans under the age of 29. From those who voted for Obama, 70% believed that the Cuban embargo must be eliminated, and 78% supported the elimination of the restrictions on travel to Cuba.

In spite of these currents of change in the Cuban exile, it will not be easy to make deep changes in US policy towards Cuba. Even the well known Helms-Burton Law approved in Congress in 1996, following the shooting down of the planes of Hermanos al Rescate, is porous, and the President has the faculty to modify or eliminate by executive order a good portion of the sanctions that are part of the embargo, the issue of Cuba in US policy is contentions, and releases passionate arguments on both sides of the conflict, and in order to definitely normalize the relationships with Cuba the President would require the approval by Congress. That would create political complications, especially taking into account that there are two senators (one of them a democrat) and four congressmen of Cuban origin who support the status quo.

In addition, in two years there will be elections and the majority obtained in Congress by the Democratic Party will be at play. In Florida, which remains a key State to win the presidency, the empty seat that shall be left open by Mel Martinez, who will not run for reelection, guarantees a fight that undoubtedly will involve the Cuban issue.

It is very possible that president Obama and his closest advisors wish to make big changes with regards to Cuba. It will not be due to lack of will, but to political difficulties if that is not done. Therefore, if Cuba fails to cooperate in the change, it will be less feasible. Such a political scenario, added to the context of the geopolitical priorities faced by the Obama presidency offer a very narrow and short lived window of opportunity to obtain significant changes in relation to Cuba.

For Cuban leaders the window opened could be the most important in the 50 years since the Revolution. It is an opportunity to bring stability to a country that has had more than 50 years of instability and indefinite revolution. Cuba requires internal peace, reconciliation, harmony and progress, not more revolution. The Cuban economy lacks the necessary productivity to support its population and after the three hurricanes last year it faces sizable economic problems of a decadent structure due to the lack of investment. The economic dependence of Cuba from Venezuela has to be a concern for Cuban leaders and must remind them of the devastating impact that had the fall of the Soviet Union of the Cuban economy. On the other hand, there are important and growing sectors of the Cuban exile who bet for the reconciliation and dialogue, even if these are worn by the passage of time and with the continuity of the status quo.

Regardless of the face that they intend to give to the Cuban economy, its problems require structural changes and it will be difficult for Cuba to reform its economy significantly while it remains alienated from US markets and capitals. For those who hold power there is always a cost to change. For Cuban leaders the question is if change today would be less costly than change tomorrow. Obama offers Cuba a clear affirmative answer that it is better to bet on change today. In this sense, the European Union has the great potential of constructively contributing to these processes.

Although it is easy to create hope with the possibilities of this window that is opening, we must moderate optimism. Historically the embargo and the confrontation with the US, although expensive for the Cuban economy, have benefited the Cuban government and has been used as the scapegoat for the failures of the regime that lacks any electoral legitimacy. We must remember that all the attempts by Obama’s predecessors to relax bilateral relationships with Cuba have been personally undermined by Fidel Castro, creating situations of crisis and confrontation with the US. Even though there are reasons to think that it would be different this time, it would be prudent for Obama to proceed with caution.

President Barack Obama offers Cuba an elegant opportunity to reconcile and to begin the normalization of relationships between both countries, without ignoring the main issue of human rights. In the end, president Castro has in his hands the capacity to accelerate the processes of change or stop them. With a serious push by Cuba, the processes of change would be unstoppable. It can also be said that US policy towards Cuba is not in the hands of the Cuban exile, but in the hands of Raul Castro. If he does not take advantage of this window, many years could go by before a similar situation could present itself. Of course it will not be easy to fix, in such a short time, a relationship that has been so conflicted and dysfunctional for so many years, but there are initial steps that can be taken. There is a saying in the US that it takes two to tango. Will Raul Castro be willing to dance?

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