HAVANA, CUBA– Whenever it seems as though something momentous and exciting is about to happen here, prepare to be disappointed. In spite of earlier signs of a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations, last week, Cuban president Raul Castro sacked several members of his cabinet, replacing two of the most well-known politicians in the country, Carlos Lage and Felipe Pérez Roque, with military hard-liners. Both Lage and Pérez Roque had been groomed by revolutionary father Fidel, and their departure leaves the post-Raul succession picture even murkier: both had been mentioned as potential candidates for the presidency before Raul was selected, and the two are among the few Cuban leaders under 60.
The day after the announcement, Fidel weighed in with one of the rhetorical op/eds he supposedly pens in the state rag Granma, saying that unnamed ministers had been seduced by “the honey of power for which they had never made any sacrifice” — presumably because neither Lage nor Pérez Roque were old enough to have fought alongside the guerrillas in the mountains, like the rest of the septuagenarians and octogenarians who now surround Raul. Washington pundits aren’t sure yet what all this means, but word on the street here is that Raul’s daughter Mariela, a government sexologist, might eventually take over. While the idea of a Cuban Dr. Ruth in power might seem laughable, Mariela is a staunch Party loyalist and international media darling who could help gloss over the Castro dynasty’s usurpation of a new generation.
For now, signs of political reform are nowhere to be found. And that’s only the latest in a long line of letdowns. Take February 2008, when, after months of suspense, Raul Castro was officially named heir to his brother’s throne. International media were abuzz with the news that change was finally coming in Havana. Cubans were starting blogs! The government was loosening the reins on free speech! Islanders’ measly salaries were going up!
We heard it all over again on New Year’s Day, 2009, when the Cuban revolution celebrated its 50th anniversary, and the world was inundated with stories about the island’s future.
The problem is, back in Havana, where “change” is a dangerous word, no real transition is taking place. After Raul took office in February, and then again on January 1, 2009, Cubans did the same thing they’d done the day before, and the day before, and the day before that: wait in long lines to catch buses and buy overpriced food, go to jobs that don’t cover their monthly expenses, and complain that their lives are like one long loop of the movie “Groundhog Day,” only without the girl.
The buzz peaked again when President Barack Obama was inaugurated in late January, after promising to restart stalemated Cuba-U.S. relations. Shortly after Obama’s big night, a Havana woman told me of watching the election returns from Florida on her pirated satellite connection. Just when the count was getting close, the entrepreneurial satellite operator — who ran one of the many networks spanning most Havana neighborhoods — changed the channel to avoid provoking the authorities, leaving all the viewers downstream in the dark. So the woman’s husband gathered a group of neighbors, barged down to the satellite operator and made him turn the election coverage back on. Market demand won, and the entire neighborhood spent the night dancing in the streets to celebrate Obama’s victory, which they hoped might mark the beginning of the end to the drawn-out duel between the Revolution and what the Castros like to call “the Empire.”
Over the past few weeks, the Cuba account has picked up again, in both Havana and Washington. Official dialogue in Washington over the past few weeks has been ground-breaking. On February 25, the House passed a bill which would rescind restrictions limiting Cuban-Americans from sending remittances to relatives and enable them to visit the island more than once every three years. The Senate passed its version Tuesday night, after Cuban-American Senators Robert Menendez, a Democrat, and Mel Martinez, a Republican, had promised to hold it up.
And late last month, Republican Senator Richard Lugar, ranking member and former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a report calling for the trade embargo to be reevaluated, saying, “After 47 years… the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of ‘bringing democracy to the Cuban people,’ while it may have been used as a foil by the regime to demand further sacrifices from Cuba’s impoverished population.” Given the amount of official energy — and hot air — used in Havana to blame every little defect of the Cuban system on the American “blockade,” it’s high time that this idea receives serious discussion.
President Obama is unlikely to end the embargo over the next four years, because he’d pay too high a price politically. And removing the embargo after no improvement in the dismal human rights situation and no end to political imprisonments in Havana could set a bad precedent for the United States in other parts of the world.
What the U.S. should do, and quickly, is enact smaller but meaningful changes in the way it deals with Cuba. First order of business: support democratic reformers, but not with millions of dollars to radio and television propaganda which rarely make it to Cuban airwaves, or to Miami organizations which siphon off pro-democracy funds to buy thousands of dollars worth of Godiva chocolates, canned crab meat and cashmere sweaters. Civil society leaders still rave about the American diplomats of the 1990s, such as Vicki Huddleston, now a scholar at the Brookings Institution, who worked to maintain a wide range of relationships, ensuring that the frequent diplomatic events at the American mission’s residence were filled with dissidents, intellectuals and sympathetic Cuban government officials. Over the past eight years, U.S. representatives in Havana have sown such enmity that this is not only a formidable, but an urgent task.
Cubans are desperate for change — any change at all — and at first, even Raul and Fidel were silly for Obama. Ever since he stepped in when his brother fell ill, Raul has been hinting that he’d love to sit down with an American president, no matter which one. Then, not three weeks after the inauguration, Fidel went from cooing over “the intelligent and noble face of the first black President of the United States” to saying that “Obama, Emanuel and all of the brilliant politicians and economists they’ve gathered won’t be enough to resolve the growing problems of capitalist American society.”
But things may be warming in Washington. The State Department recently began a groundbreaking program to bring Cuban students to the United States. Some Cubans doubt the program will even work, given that applicants could end up being denied exit from Cuba for cavorting with the Yankees, but its existence signals a shift in the long-standing tradition of summarily denying visas to Cuban intellectuals and artists seeking to visit the U.S. for professional events.
It would also be wise to increase the number of immigrant visas offered each year, to disprove the government line that it’s Washington trying to keep Cubans from moving North. As it is, thousands of Cubans each year already decide to circumvent the visa process and sneak into the United States, because under the Wet Foot/Dry Foot rule, they’re automatically allowed to stay in the country once they arrive. With such a simple escape valve, Havana is left with little impetus to keep its citizens happy.
But with an economy in shambles, an increasingly unhappy population, and a new administration in Washington ready to reach out its hand, the Castro regime would do well to heed the signs and begin loosening its grip. If past is prologue, chances are it’ll happen when the world is looking away.
-Lygia Navarro is a fellow at the Phillips Foundation.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire