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Cuba at a crossroads

Craig Frayne

January 26, 2015

On December 17, 2014, Havana and Washington agreed to normalize diplomatic and economic ties. President Obama called it a “new chapter” and the “most significant” change in US policy towards Cuba in 50 years.
This is widely seen as a gain for the Cuban people and may present new opportunities for struggle from below. However, this new chapter contains many of the old dynamics: ongoing imperialist influence, state capitalism, and the need for civil liberties and political alternatives.
Ongoing imperialism            
Some argue economic liberalization will lead to a more open society and benefits for the people. Others, chiefly among the South Florida exile community, criticize the new Cuba policy on human rights grounds, claiming President Obama “sold out freedom.” However, both arguments fail to address that US policies in Cuba have been motivated by capitalist and imperial interests, not democracy or human rights.
Prior to the Revolution, Cuba was a colony dominated by US mafia and companies, which controlled 75 per cent of arable land and primary industry. US government and business interests backed the Batista dictatorship, which repressed Cuban workers and civil society as a whole. Shortly after the 1959 overthrow of Batista by Castro’s guerilla forces, the US government severed diplomatic ties, tightened the embargo, and attempted a series of failed invasions, assassination attempts, and sabotage. After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, President Kennedy backed terrorist plots intended, in the words of Kennedy associate Arthur Schlesinger, to bring “the terrors of the earth” to Cuba. These were communicated as targeted at the Castro government, but harmed the population as a whole and killed thousands. Beyond the immediate damage, the US threat provided Castro with a pretext for internal repression and further motivated alignment (material and ideological) with the Stalinist regimes. Rather than advancing the interests of Cuban people, this undermined democracy and human rights on the island and even led to the brink of nuclear war.  
While the US claimed, in Obama’s words, to be “supporting democracy and human rights in Cuba through five decades,” it continued to overthrow elected governments and back violent dictatorships throughout the hemisphere; maintained military occupation of Southeastern Cuba (including the gulag at Guantanamo Bay); and enforced an embargo that cost an estimated $1.4 trillion, sabotaging a Cuban economy that had developed through US exports. Moreover, the blockade prevented internal reforms by distracting from the inherent waste and inefficiency of the Cuban bureaucracy by Cuban leadership an excuse for poor economic performance (particularly after the collapse of the USSR). The embargo may seem to contradict capitalist interests, but as Noam Chomsky has argued, fear that Cuba’s defiance of US interests would be an example in the region, led to a US commitment to block economic development. In other words, the blockade was imposed to impoverish the Cuban people because Cuba challenged US power, not to promote rights and democracy.
Historically, Castro’s government brutally executed, imprisoned and exiled their critics and opponents. But this is not why the US has vilified Cuba: the US has happily supported brutal dictatorships from Argentina to Guatemala, and supplies billions in military aid to finance human rights attacks in Honduras, Colombia and Mexico. Despite the embargo, living standards in Cuba are better than many countries in the region that have had “normal” relations, such as Honduras, El Salvador and Haiti—particularly for the poorest segments of the population. So the normalization of relations does not mean Cuba has escaped imperialism. Rather, a new set of diplomatic and economic tools will be applied in a manner more consistent to the rest of the Global South. The recent change in Cuban relations is perhaps more the next step of hegemonic foreign policy, not a “new chapter.”                  
Cuba’s relative importance in US foreign policy has diminished since the end of the Cold War, and there has been pressure from corporate interests to normalize relations. There has already been gradual foreign investment in certain sectors, such as agribusiness, resources and tourism (including a number of Canadian companies). In June 2014, a new Foreign Investment Law took effect to prepare for an influx of capital. Opening of trade and foreign investment is seen as an effective way for Cuba to overcome persistent economic challenges of low productivity, capital loss, and lack of consumer goods.
Indeed, recent changes may offer new opportunities. In a recent article, Sam Farber, author of Cuba: Since the Revolution of 1959, wrote that normalized relations “can improve the standard of living of Cubans and help to liberalize, although not necessarily democratize, the conditions of their political oppression and economic exploitation, making it easier to organize and act to defend their interests in an autonomous fashion against both the state and the new capitalists.”
However, given Cuba’s one-party political system and centralized economy—with suppression of opposition on the left or right—an influx of foreign capital threatens to benefit bureaucratic insiders and corporate interests, not the Cuban people. Facing poor economic performance, the Cuban leadership is pursuing economic liberalization based on the growth model of other state capitalist regimes, such as China and Vietnam. Raúl Castro voiced admiration for the Chinese economic model and, in 2011, announced similar reforms—including private land ownership, reduced state spending, foreign investment and enterprise autonomy. In China and other state capitalist regimes, privatization has empowered a politically connected ruling class, in an alliance between foreign capital and the repressive state bureaucracy. But China has also seen a gradual opening, with protests, strikes and pressure from below—which could emerge in Cuba.
Civil liberties and political alternatives
Civil liberties are imperative for self-determination of the Cuban people. However, control by the regime (political, economic, and social) has the dual effect of discouraging opposition and supressing ideas/discourses which are critical of government.
Although the recent announcement between Havana and Washington did include a symbolic and historic prisoner exchange, it did not commit the Cuban government to specific measures to promote democracy or pluralism. In September 2014, Cuban civil society activists (including ex-prisoners from the 2003 Black Spring) met to discuss points of consensus to advance civil society and open space in Cuba: release of political prisoners, ending of political repression, ratification of UN Human Rights covenants, and recognition of civil society within and outside the island. 
Beyond negative freedoms (e.g. freedom of speech, absence of state coercion), liberty involves economic justice and equality. It is unclear whether civil liberties would entail political alternatives beyond liberal democratic variants of capitalism. For example, state-controlled press could be replaced by monopoly capitalist press; a one-party state replaced by electoral democracy at the service of capital. Therefore, movements and struggles that challenge both state and capitalist repression are crucial. 
Labour struggle is one area that could resurface. Immediately after the revolution, there were significant improvements in living standards and social services for the general population. However, Castro soon removed any autonomy from trade unions and purged the leadership, in order to bring unions under government control to oversee their implementation of national production plans and dissemination of Party doctrine. Gains that workers had won following the revolution were rolled-back and the right to strike was removed from the constitution, with the rationale that Cuban workers now owned the means of production and thus would undermine themselves in any strike action. Independent worker action was not common for several reasons: living standards were guaranteed (though modest), and the guarantee of basic necessities combined with scarcity of consumer goods (there was nothing to buy) left little incentive for workers to bargain for higher wages or essential services. But since the economic crisis of the 1990s and current opening of the economy, these factors are changing.
As Sam Farber writes, “with the passing of the historic generation of revolutionary leaders within the next decade, a new political landscape will emerge where left-wing opposition political action may resurface and give strength to the nascent critical left in Cuba.” 

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