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How the US elections look from Cuba

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The Cuban government has had to deal, since 2008, with the fact that expectations of Obama were as unrealistic among Cubans as they may have been among Obama supporters in the United States.

Antoni Kapcia
22 October 2012

One might say with some accuracy that no country is likely to be watching the US elections more assiduously than Cuba. Still under a punitive economic embargo (the longest, but perhaps least successful, sanctions in history), still therefore technically in a state of hostility (since the embargo began under the US Trading with the Enemy Act), still seeing a steady trickle – and sometimes a flow – of its citizens seeking to leave Cuba for the United States (not least because of illegal Cuban immigrants’ unique right to US residence and citizenship, a policy in existence since 1966), and of course only a stone’s throw from the US coast, Cuba lives today in the shadow of the United States as no other country does. Moreover, since 1991, it has had no superpower protector to counter-balance that reality, making what happens in the United States of direct relevance to so much in Cuban daily life.

One reason for Cubans to watch the elections closely is that, by and large, post-1963 US politics have thrown up a pattern whereby the more right-wing Republican presidencies have seen greater hostility towards Cuba and a tightening of the embargo (most notably under Reagan and George W. Bush), while the periods of relative détente and attempts to normalise relations have come under Democratic presidents (e.g. Carter - when relations were closest to being completely normalised, in 1977 - Clinton and Obama). Moreover, there was little doubt that, with the embargo and Cuba’s exclusion from continental arenas remaining a running sore in US relations with Latin America and the Caribbean, and with many US agricultural states keen to trade normally with Cuba, ending the embargo was part of Obama’s reform package in 2008, and something many in Cuba and the United States expected, or hoped, to see.

However, the reality since then has been one of disappointment for those expecting great advances on Cuba: the repeal of the more draconian restrictions (on US travel and Cuban-American remittances to Cuba) which the Bush Administration imposed in 2004, and an easing of other travel to and from Cuba, but no more. Obama aides blame Cuban intransigence while the Cubans blame the hidden agenda behind those reforms.

For the Cuban government has had to deal, since 2008, with the fact that expectations of Obama were as unrealistic among Cubans as they may have been among Obama supporters in the United States, with evident dangers for possible blame being attached to the Cuban government. Hence, Havana was careful to dampen expectations from the moment of Obama’s election. However, another reason for caution has been an awareness that Obama’s Cuba policy has largely been a continuation of Clinton’s so-called ‘twin track’ policy, i.e. maintaining the embargo (though not pursuing it vigorously) while seeking to undermine the Cuban system through increased cultural and academic contact with ‘civil society’, a policy which has inevitably made the Cuban authorities nervous of even the innocent-looking US overtures or visitors.

Hence, the Cuban media and government are publicly keeping their powder dry on the outcome of the elections. There can be little doubt that they would prefer a second Obama term, if only because, for all Romney’s moderation, a Republican presidency - especially one with Paul Ryan as Vice-President and with some inevitable debts to pay to Florida-based Cuban-American groups, in the event of a close victory – is always more likely to carry threats, challenges and even hostility than a Democratic presidency.

Moreover, Havana is all too aware that, if there was any hint that the Cuban government might openly favour an Obama victory, that would immediately become a stick with which sections of the US media and the Republican right would beat the Obama campaign. Therefore, ‘say nothing but pray’ seems to be the motto in Havana, as ever, with the media’s treatment of the campaign focusing on the power of the right-wing lobbies, the state of the US economy and the vast amounts of money spent in getting elected, i.e. criticisms of the worst aspects of the US system rather than of specific politicians. It is likely to remain that way until the outcome of the election becomes clear.

This article is part of the 'How it looks from here' openDemocracy feature on the 2012 US elections. For more worldwide perspectives on the presidential race, click here.

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