US-Cuba rapprochement: welcome to the Caribbean thaw

The Castro regime, they have reasoned, will not be defeated by the CIA but with SEARS, the famous retail chain. Español.

Abel Gilbert
4 February 2015

The Simpsons in Cuba via YoutubeThe metaphor of the thaw refers to a story about extremely severe Siberian weather conditions. It alludes to the decision in 1956 of Nikita Khrushchev, the then Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to attenuate the repressive character of so-called “real socialism” and attempt to straighten its path. Nearly sixty years later, the image of the thaw has been reinstated to refer to the new prevailing climate in the Caribbean following the agreement between Cuba and the United States to normalize their relations. The tropical island having become, when the USSR imploded in 1991, a territory frozen in Cold War logic - twenty-four years later, in Havana, the two governments started melting the glacial wall, not a process that will take place overnight.

How did this normalization of diplomatic relations occur? For some reason, President Barack Obama acknowledged that the policy of harassment towards Castroism has resulted in a complete failure. Washington's stubbornness has only increased the US distance from the sub-continent, where China is fast gaining ground. And US businessmen have only been watching the Cuban economy being reconfigured without them. This will no longer happen.

In a Simpsons’ episode a few years ago, Homer, Mr. Burns and Flanders travel to the island with a one-trillion dollar banknote. In this episode we hear Fidel say, before keeping the money for himself: "Comrade, our nation is ruined, we have no choice but to abandon communism... We knew from the start that this would not work”. The Cuban Government was duly annoyed, except for the real Fidel who was quick to outsmart his cartoon figure in 2010: "Among the many mistakes we have made, the foremost was to believe that someone actually knew about socialism or how to build it”. The trade embargo created victimhood in Havana: Castro blamed the US for everything that was wrong in the island, even if this was in fact a technical and conceptual fallacy. During the years of the strategic alliance with Moscow, Cuba used more fertilizers and tractors per acre than the average American farmer, yet could not solve its food problems and chronic shortages. The blockade thwarted any discussion. What might happen the day after? Even today, there will be no shortage of those who will claim things were better with the good old antagonist.

Rectify or drown

Raúl Castro famously said some years ago: “We either rectify or drown”. Himself a persuaded Stalinist, he was left with no other option but reform. But reform contained within it the mechanism that would eventually destroy his brother’s work. Iván de la Nuez, one of the most lucid Cuban intellectuals born after the revolution, was quick to see what lay waiting at the crossroads: "the problem - and after half a century in power Raúl Castro should know it well – lies in the paradox of his agonizing imperative. It is true that if the government does not rectify, the country will sink. But if it rectifies in depth, the government will sink".  The falling oil prices and the ensuing crisis in Venezuela and Russia, two allies of Havana, are forcing Castroism to hastily imagine new horizons and to look for new suppliers. The core of the matter is now how to preserve some room for political independence on the unrelenting path towards world-market integration.

Some within the American elite understood long ago that the collapse of the Castro regime, rather than scoring a victory might turn out to be a major problem: it could trigger a stampede of Cubans into the United States. More Latinos in US soil, who will soon become the first minority? No way. Is this particular military bureaucracy, living in a permanent state of adjustment, the only player who can carry out the Cuban transition and reach some understanding with a portion of those in exile? The most hard-line anti-Castroists, unsurprisingly, have reacted against any sort of agreement. And some in the Latin American Left, who maintain their sentimental relationship with Castro, share this frustration: they would prefer a heroic Cuba every time rather than see it heading relentlessly towards capitalism.

It takes more than hot air to melt this wall

Now, let us go back to the thaw image. As part of the de-Stalinization process, Khrushchev raised the banner of "peaceful coexistence" among the two powers. In 1959, the year when Castro made his triumphant entry into Havana, Nikita met the president of the United States, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. In turn, the US organized an exhibition in Moscow "to allow Soviet citizens to compare housing models and living standards." The exhibition was inaugurated by Khrushchev and Vice President Richard Nixon. That year, the Communist Party set out to "improve living standards to meet and surpass America". As is well known, it failed miserably. Obama's advisers have not overlooked the lessons of the past: the Castro regime, they have reasoned, will not be defeated by the CIA but with SEARS, the famous retail chain, with which spies share more than a phonetic analogy in Spanish: "Find something great!” the mega store browser promises, and this slogan is perhaps the answer to what is coming.

The new measures taken by the Obama administration – the removal of restrictions on travel and expenses in the island for US citizens, and of remittances for Cuban exiles – will have truly transformative effects for both the everyday life and the imaginary of Cuban citizens. In 2013, more than 600,000 Cuban Americans landed at José Martí airport in Havana. Such flights will increase exponentially. Not to mention sea travel. The raising of the remittances ceiling from 500 to 2,000 USD quarterly is another aspect which will have major consequences: remittances are, after tourism, the main caption of the island’s economy.

A recent study by the Havana Consulting Group shows that Cubans received 2.77 billion dollars in 2013 from relatives living in the US. The study reveals that a majority of the senders are young - a new generation, alert to the changes that have been put in place - and that the receivers are adults over fifty. A portion of the remittances go to the self-employed (“cuentrapropistas” is the Cuban neologism for that), who in a few months time will be able to export to the US: the making of a bourgeoisie will come before long.

In this connection, the Central Bank of Cuba has announced the entry into circulation as from February 1, of high-denomination banknotes worth 200, 500 and 1,000 pesos. This is another step towards the anticipated monetary unification essential for the times ahead. There are two currencies circulating in Cuba since 1994, at the height of the post-Soviet Union collapse: the Cuban peso (CUP, 24 to the dollar), with which wages and services are paid; and the convertible peso (CUC, equal to the dollar), used by tourists and those who have access to special stores, where they spend part of the remittances some receive. In recent months, the use of the Cuban peso has been extended to shops operating with convertible pesos. The existence of two currencies causes accounting and production disorders which are unsustainable in the face of the challenging economic transition.

Changes in Cuba will not essentially modify the agenda of a varied and often irreconcilable Latin American Left. The island has abandoned its role as the beacon that mesmerized everybody in the sixties and, if in some sectors the emotional bonds with Castroism still dominate, the verdict on that experience has been reached, even if the preclusions and detachments are not always articulated loudly enough. In a region that, over the last few years, has created new reference points for the Left, the highest expectation about Cuba’s developments is closely linked to its inexorable transition. What seems sure though, is that the island will remain anchored in the Latin American sphere.

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