Cuba´s slow-motion transitional process

Economic and democratic liberalization should have to wait for the end of US embargo. Meanwhile, Cuba maintains its international postures, strengthens its ties with Russia, and keeps a non radical political approach in Latin America. Español.

Augusto Varas
18 November 2015

Coca-Cola float in the Cuban Parade on Sixth Avenue in New York in May 1993. Richard Levine/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Recent loosening of economic, travel and financial restrictions enforced in recent months by the Obama administration toward Cuba are creating increasing expectations that the Cuban economy would move towards a liberal democratic and a market oriented systems opening new opportunities for US, French and Spanish companies in the island.

Politics and Economics

Due to the restoration, after 50 years, of US-Cuban diplomatic relations, the coming landings of the Rolling Stones, Coca-Cola, Marriot and Hilton hotel chains, Carnival cruises, Sony Music and realtors to Cuba are examples of the growing interest of the international business community in this process.

This enthusiasm has also been observed in neighboring countries like the Dominican Republic where its ambassador in Spain indicated that opening the market to attract global tourism to Cuba will also impact positively in the Dominican Republic creating "the possibility of shared destinies". More skeptically in the political field, Julia Sweig, Senior Research Fellow at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at The University of Texas at Austin, stated that Cuba “is going to be more democratic that has been, is going to be more liberal than it has been, but that would be with a one party system”. 

Undoubtedly, US-Cuban rapprochement will create a new atmosphere for international business and will promote a better commercial integration with Latin American and Caribbean countries. Cuban comparative advantages in educated human resources (according to the BBC, “50,000 health workers engaged in health projects in 68 countries, half of them doctors”); its technological, scientific and research capabilities; its strategic location for international commerce and transportation, would definitively generate a better environment for Cuba’s regional and world trade and investment integration.

At the same time, the end of the embargo would make possible for Cuba to manage US dollar accounts in third country banks and have access to credits from US banks and their affiliates in third countries, and from international financial institutions such as the World Bank (WB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

Nevertheless, current US-Cuban diplomatic changes are not enough to dramatically change Cuban economic and political systems. Releasing 53 prisoners after the announcement of the restoration of diplomatic relations with the US and another 3.500 ones after the Pope last visit to Havana has been a signal of goodwill from the Cuban government towards those involved in this process.

However, despite the Pope’s efforts to improve political and human rights conditions, it will take a long time to make them real. A necessary condition would be to remove current US economic blockade, but even in this case the Cuban government would need some time to readjust and accommodate itself to this new hypothetical situation. According to Cynthia Arnson, Director of the Latin American Program the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., “What has been negotiated is the normalization of bilateral relations, not a change in its domestic policies.” In this context, diplomatic delegations of Cuba and the United States recently agreed to boost cooperation on security issues such as combating terrorism, drug trafficking, money laundering and smuggling.

International postures

All these possible changes would not imply a clear departure from current Cuban confrontational postures in international affairs particularly vis-à-vis the US. At the UN, President Castro -defining US demands for citizens’ rights protection as a selective and discriminatory way to enforce policy decisions-, stated his political demands to the US: end of the economic, commercial and financial blockade; devolution of the Guantanamo Naval Base; cessation of media programs against Cuban government; and compensation for human and economic damages. He also criticized world demilitarization; and demanded the end of the use of information technologies to attack other states in the cyberspace.

At the same time, this international posture is instrumental to increase Cuban leverage on its demands vis-à-vis the US, particularly strengthening Cuban-Russian relations. Actually, after the December 2014 announcement that the US will reopen diplomatic relations with Cuba, in April 2015, Ricardo Cabrisas, Vice President of the Cuban Council of Ministers, visited Kazan for the special session of the Cuban-Russian intergovernmental commission on trade-economic and scientific-technical cooperation. Immediately afterwards, Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev and Cuban President Raul Castro met in May to discuss prospects of joint projects of bilateral interest. As a result of these talks Russia will provide generators at the Máximo Gomes and Este Habana power plants in Cuba.

Consistently with these exchanges, in his UN speech President Castro criticized NATO’s approaches and EU’s sanctions towards Russia; supported the nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic of Iran; agreed with a Palestinian state within pre-1967 borders with its capital in East Jerusalem; criticized the European Union for not assuming responsibilities on the migration crisis; and stated a clear posture opposing to regime change in Syria. In this regard, the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies of the University of Miami denounced the deployment of Cuban military forces in Syria supporting the Assad regime. The Director General of Bilateral Affairs of the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Gerardo Peñalver Portal, categorically denied and refuted this ”irresponsible and unfounded information.” The latest opening of the United Arab Emirates embassy in Havana is another example of Cuba’s projection in the international checkerboard.

In Latin America, President Castro supported current presidents of Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, and Argentina (including the Malvinas claim); advocated for protection of climate change effects over Caribbean countries; demanded Puerto Rico’s independence; reparations for slavery and slave trade; and highlighted the importance of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) -the independent regional organization from the US as opposed to the OAS- and its proclamation of Latin America and the Caribbean as a Zone of Peace.

Criticizing capitalism and welfare societies as failed role models, he suggested that Cuba will defend his own development way, probably following the Vietnam path. Interestingly, in this context President Castro did not mention the leftist regional organization Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA) providing a signal that, even though his international postures differs from the US and EU ones, he is not prone to engage Cuba in a radicalization of leftist politics in Latin America.

On the contrary, Cuba has been diplomatically mediating between the US and Venezuela, and playing a key role in the Colombian peace process. Accordingly, a new space for cooperation with Cuba in the region could be expanded even making possible some kind of partnership on drug trafficking control in the Caribbean. Institutionally speaking, José Miguel Insulza, former Secretary General of the Organization of American States, indicated that with the new US policy “the OAS’ doors are opened for Cuba since then”.

Considering these moderate postures and despite the strong Cuban anti-US policies rhetoric, Secretary of State, John Kerry, recently indicated that it is possible to gradually restore relations with Cuba before the island is a full democracy, as the US did it before with Vietnam and China: "I personally think that the embargo should be removed because doing so will help the people of Cuba […] the US Congress is rightly concerned about human rights, democracy and the ability of people to meet”, but he insisted that the only condition is "a pathway to improve the relationship between government and its people".

Regional relations

Since Cuba has been a long-term symbol of US intervention in the region, these changes are also having regional effects. Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff, during her recent visit to the White House, recognized that this is "a turning point in the relationship with Latin America. It changes the level of US relations with the region. It is a parameter to be followed".

With a new political profile, Cuba will be more efficient in supporting the Colombian peace process, not only with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (FARC), but also with the National Liberation Army (ELN), therefore increasing its international prestige and profile.

As a consequence of these changes, new opportunities for Latin American countries to contribute to Cuban democratization will be opened. In this scenario, the interaction and presence of Latin American and international non-governmental organizations in Cuba could have a reinforcing effect in a transitional process toward a more pluralist polity.

All together, Cuba will have to handle its regional social relation with new approaches. In Latin America, after Mexico, Colombia and Ecuador, Cuba is one of the most important sources of international migrants. Latin American countries such as Venezuela, México, Chile, and Dominican Republic are main regional destinies. Cuban doctors in Chile and Venezuela are examples of this regional process. It is reasonable to think that increased freedom of movement in Cuba would probably raise migration flows toward other Latin American countries, creating new problems for Cuban and local recipient authorities.

Despite citizens’ and governmental officials’ optimism of better living conditions thanks to this new US-Cuban relations, an unexpected situation has been observed: the increasing number of Cuban migrants into the US (31,314 during the 2015). They are concerned with a possible end of the US policy permitting Cuban reaching the U.S. to remain there permanently. The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act allows Cubans who touch U.S. soil to stay and apply for a green card after one year, eligible for benefits granted to refugees fleeing persecution, such as some cash assistance and medical coverage. As a consequence of improved bilateral relations is highly likely that these prerogatives will be eliminated in a new package of US policy measures.

At the same time, worried with emigration and preventing a brain drain, Cuban authorities are changing their policy toward medical doctors who deserted while serving on government-backed programs abroad. According to Granma, “health professionals who, under the terms of the migratory reform, have left the country, be it because of financial, family related or professional reasons, including the victims of deceitful brain-drain practices, will be offered the opportunity to rejoin our national health system if they wish to do so, and shall be guaranteed a position with conditions similar to the ones they previously enjoyed.”

These kinds of changes, together with the relaxation of other US restrictions such as those on visits and remittances, will disempower Cuban-American political and lobbying organizations in the US, creating the space for moderate groups able to interact with Cuban authorities on future transitional scenarios.

Simultaneously, this new diplomatic atmosphere would make possible a different type of interaction among Latin American and extra regional non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with Cuban counterparts. Since collaborative linkages between Cuban and international NGOs have often been under the government political authority or control, this new context would make possible a freer kind of relationship expanding the presence and role of civil society organizations in this slow-motion transitional process.

In sum, although some effects of new Cuban-US relations have been observed, and that it is highly likely that Cuba would be reintegrated into world commerce and financial multilateral institutions playing growing political roles in the region and in some world issues, all these changes will not have automatic democratizing and liberalizing effects in its political and economic systems. In this context, international actors will have to balance its investment interests in a less isolated Cuban economy with its own commitments with civil and political liberties.

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