SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
On Sunday, March 20, President Barack Obama traveled to Cuba, the first time the Caribbean nation has seen a U.S. president in 88 years. The first leg of the trip featured a meeting with Cardinal Jaime Ortega. The Cardinal was a key figure in the negotiation process between Havana, Washington, and the Vatican, where Pope Francis also played a key role. President Obama then met with Cuban president Raul Castro, and then convened with business leaders from both Cuba and the United States. On his last day in Cuba, the president is expected to give a speech that will be broadcast throughout Cuba, so that he can speak directly to Cubans, and he will meet with political dissidents before finally attending a baseball game and leaving for Argentina.
The president’s trip is being hailed by some U.S. policy analysts as a shining example of soft diplomacy. Let’s see what our guests have to say about that. James Early is a former director of cultural heritage policy for folk life programs at the Smithsonian Institute. He’s also a board member at the Institute for Policy Studies and at the Real News Network. He has made numerous cultural visits to Cuba. James, thank you so much for joining us today.
JAMES EARLY: Thank you.
PERIES: And I’m also being joined by Alex Main. Alex is the senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, where he focused on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and the Caribbean. Alex, thank you so much for joining us today.
ALEX MAIN: Thank you.
PERIES: So, James, let me begin with you. I want to get both of your reactions, actually, to the visit. Is this a good thing for Cubans, and how will it impact Cuba?
EARLY: This is definitely a major advance for Cuba, and a testimony to the perseverance of Cuban citizens. And the statecraft of their public servants, in [staring] them through a 54-year horrendous process of attempted destabilization of [artsen] on the part of Paris, shoot down the planes. And what they have effectively done is to maintain their sovereignty, their self-determination. And they have been able to align the nations of the Caribbean and Latin America through the community of Latin American and European nations, the [alpha] countries, and along with the European Union, into leveraging the United States back into the UN protocols of how nations should normatively handle their differences, as well as to their mutual interests.
So indeed, it is a fig leaf for those who would say that this is a reflection of soft power. The U.S. has admitted openly President Barack Obama, his foreign policy advisor Susan Rice, many members of the U.S. Congress, including conservative members of the Congress, that this has been a failed policy in trying to overthrow the Cuban socialist revolution.
PERIES: So, Alex, let me also get your reaction to the visit. Is this a good thing for Cubans, and how will it impact Cuba?
MAIN: Well, we’ll have to see. The Cubans, I think rightly, are proceeding very cautiously with this opening. And I think actually part of the reason that Obama is visiting is to try to force the business agenda of the U.S. down the throat of the Cubans a bit. There have been a lot of complaints from the administration and some of the U.S. business community that in fact, you know, Cuba isn’t responding quickly enough to the economic overtures of various private sector interests, agribusiness and so on, that are trying to get into the Cuban market more quickly. And I think that will almost certainly be part of Obama’s agenda in Cuba. Most likely part of the private discussions that he’s going to have with Raul and other Cuban officials.
But I do think, I mean, I agree with James that this is really a triumph of the Cuban revolution. It’s, of course, amazing that they survived so long being so close to the U.S., and facing constant aggression. And certainly the U.S. administration has softened up a little, while of course the embargo has been maintained for now.
But I think, really, Obama’s given a little bit too much credit for all of this. I mean, perhaps other presidents would have moved more slowly, less decisively than he did. But you know, there have been just major changes in the region. The U.S. is going more and more isolated, regionally. Even, you know, right-wing governments such as that of President Santos in Colombia were adamant that there shouldn’t be more summits, multilateral summits, of Latin American countries without including Cuba, and that the U.S. couldn’t continue with its positions towards, towards Cuba.
So I think really it was incredibly damaging to the U.S.’s relations throughout the region. And you know, Obama was basically–it could have been Obama, it could have been someone else. They were going to move forward in this direction of normalization with Cuba.
PERIES: Right. And this perseverance which James talks about, and the, obviously the test that, the success that, this is a testimony to the success of the Cuban revolution. Of course, good things, and in fact it’s true. But this also introduces a great deal of danger to the socialist state of Cuba. By this, I mean that this is going to alter the Cuban way moving forward, that it has managed to build a very stable and maintain a very good social structure in Cuba since 1961. And for the last 55 years, yes, it has persevered and been very successful.
Now, opening up like this, what advantages does it have for Cuba? Let me go to you, James.
EARLY: Well, it has a lot of advantages for Cuba. I think we have to deal with the embargo of information. Since the national assembly elected Raul Castro to the head of state there has been widespread debate among Cuban citizens, widespread debate within the Cuban communist party, to not only look at their virtues but specifically to look at their own internal self-constructed weaknesses and their own failures.
One of the very first things that Raul Castro said is that if the embargo were moved today, Cuba would still have tremendous internal difficulty through its own fault. So Cuba has been involved in deep reflection and debate of looking at the differentiation between the party, the state, the government, and the people. It has been involved in a lot of self-critical reflection of the irony of having educated one of the world’s most educated populations by all of the [inaud.] of the UN and the independent bodies on their children scoring high in math and science, and great cultural production. A major country in the world on biotechnology and cancer vaccines, and all of this.
But not producing sufficiently to stabilize themselves, being overly dependent on monocultural products, particularly sugar, having to import a lot of food. So the Cubans have been involved in a very democratic participatory process of self-criticism and self-reflection. Now, this will aid that process, but it will not determine that process. There is ongoing open expressed concerns about how the, how U.S. investments, how remittances from the U.S. will exacerbate class differences, how it is already exacerbating certain racial differentiations and material stability.
But the Cubans are very smart people. They are very dignified and strong, and disciplined people, who have been through a horrendous 54-year period. And I think there is every reason to have confidence that despite the dangers of an altered social relationship based on small-scale capitalist entrepreneurship, the Cuban policymakers are meticulously looking at this, and trying to figure out almost hourly how to keep stable the socialized dimensions of their country, and to prevent greed and monopoly and the infiltration of U.S. capital to split the Cuban people from their public servants.
So it is, it is going to be a tricky and protracted process, as Alex pointed out. The Cubans are moving very deliberately, in a very measured and protracted way. They will not allow themselves to be rushed into an investment relationship. And they’re taking their time in figuring this out step by step. So I think again there’s reason to have confidence that they will find their way through this, and the challenge is that foreign capital, and the attempts of the U.S. still to overthrow the Cuban regime, the United States department is still funding dissidents, USAID is still funding regime change groups, and the National Endowment for Democracy is still propagandizing. But the Cubans are managing their way step by step. And it’s very early in the game. So we will have to see, over the course of the next 24 months or so.
PERIES: Now, the State Department and of course President Obama, the White House is saying that one of the objectives of this trip is to promote Cuban democracy. And part of that is reflected in the agenda of the meeting when he is actually going to be meeting and speaking with dissidents. But you know, at the end of the day, what Americans mean by promoting democracy and what actually needs to happen to strengthen the Cuban democratic system and socialism is also at stake here. Alex, tell us what the difference is. What is required to strengthen democracy, and democratic institutions in Cuba compared to what Americans mean by that?
MAIN: Well, I think it’s interesting that the strategy, the publicly declared strategy of the Obama administration for carrying out this regime change towards more democracy, as they call it, involves, you know, essentially bringing more capitalism to Cuba. And sort of, you know, forcing this business agenda on the Cubans, and you know, opening up the markets, as much as possible, to U.S. economic interests. They say very clearly that that’s the manner in which, you know, Cubans are going to become sort of more enlightened, and the whole socialist system is just going to crumble through the force of capitalism on the island.
So I think that gives you a clear sense of what they mean by democracy. It’s synonymous, I think, with sort of economic liberalism, or neoliberalism. Really, the same line that we’ve seen the State Department pushing in Latin America and throughout the world, for that matter. You know, at least since sort of the late ’80s, early ’90s. Sort of the post-communist period, when they’ve made this constant equation between free markets and freedom, period. In the State Department lexicon, those are basically synonyms.
PERIES: And James, why don’t you come in on this, too?
EARLY: I think it’s very important for American audiences of whatever ideological or political persuasion to understand and to try to follow what the internal Cuban debates are. The Cubans have been debating the weakness of their socialist democracy. They have been very self-critical about over-centralization. They have been critical about, I mean, Raul Castro has made very clear to the Communist party, you are not the government. You have to understand the distinction and the relationship between the Communist party and the independence of the government, and that the government is not the Cuban people.
And so that there is a discourse that started in the Caribbean region at a macro level with Michael Manley, many many years ago. Participatory democracy that also emerged in Brazil, and then began to sweep Latin America in a larger sense, when Hugo Chavez was elected president in Venezuela, and opened up this question, is the citizen, their imagination, their creativity, their initiatives which must be collaborated with, it is not the government doing for them, it is working with them.
And the Cubans are in a very, very critical self-reflection. Raul Castro, again, the first or the second thing that he said in terms of a major announcement after becoming president of the country was there is too little criticism in this country. We need to hear more criticism. And everything within the revolution, outside the revolution, nothing. Which means simply that if you feel that things are not efficient, if you feel that there is corruption, if you feel that there are friendship relations, that are promoting some over others, criticize it. Criticize it openly. And he said to the public servants, you must be patient, you must listen, and you must respond to the citizenry. And he’s asked the citizenry to come forth with proposals.
And all one has to do is really go online and read the various debates going on in Cuba. There is still a liberal media blockade that suggests that Cuba is a static citizenry, an inanimate object being moved around a chess board by Raul Castro and Fidel Castro, who long ago retired from power, and is not an active participant in policy-making in Cuba.
So the Cubans are going to, I think, confront these neoliberal perspective about commercialized democracy, where corporations make determinations and large investments with their people-centered relationship and their recalibration with the relationship with everyday citizens, to the members of the Communist party, to the elected officials of government.
And I would just conclude on this point, something that is easily found out and has been around for a while, but no one seems to want to refer to it. Raul Castro initiated a policy change in which you cannot be head of government in Cuba for more than eight years. That is now an existing policy. And I think we will see more and more of those kind of internal recalibrations based on how Cubans want to proceed to ensure that their citizens are really at the center of the notions of democracy, the notions of policymaking, and the notions of development. And a reconsideration of what is the role of the Communist party, and how do you make the government function better, and most definitely how you get a more efficient economy.
The U.S. is late to the economic situation. The Brazilians made major investments in the [mariel] port. The Chinese are there, the Russians are there, the Malaysians are there. The European Union has just made its rapprochement. So the United States, it will raise a lot of noise about democracy and frustration about Cubans not responding to their commercial advances. But the U.S. government has already repeatedly said the Cubans are very hard, very shrewd negotiators. And so again, I have confidence that the Cubans are going to find their way through this, even as there are great threats to the possibility of trying to overthrow their government, and to try and put blandishments of economic interest to make their citizens separate from their policy servants.
PERIES: Alex, president this evening met with a number of businesspeople that had accompanied him to Cuba, as well as Cuban businesspeople. What are the items you suspect is on the agenda that they talked about, and what do you think will come out of such meetings?
MAIN: Well, I think Obama will point to some recent measures, where the U.S. government has sort of changed the regulations allowing the Cuban government to engage in transactions with U.S. banks. They’ve also lifted travel restrictions and so on, and so it will say, okay, now it’s the Cubans’ turn to respond to all of this. And you know, basically give us your business.
And I think, you know, quite likely he’s going to get the same sort of response that other officials have gotten so far during this opening towards Cuba, which is that, you know, they’re going to look over each business deal very carefully, because every deal in a country like Cuba is going to have a real impact on the country’s economy, on, you know, these issues of, well, you know, the changes in terms of the social structure, and perhaps growing inequality that has to be grappled with. I think they’re very right to sort of take their time with this.
But you know, it’s interesting. Obama, wherever he’s gone in Latin America, it’s been really the business agenda above all else. The last trip that he made to Jamaica and then to Panama, that was sort of first and foremost he was really pushing the U.S. natural gas through fracking export agenda, in that region. I think, you know, that’s really what’s happening in Cuba.
You know, James is right to point out that there are other outside economic actors that have been involved much longer, and I think the U.S. is trying to catch up. Particularly with the Brazilians, and this very important port the Brazilians are helping build, which will of course be very, very close to the U.S., and extremely strategic as far as maritime trade goes.
EARLY: The Cubans have been reducing the amount of food they’ve imported from the United States, even as they have argued and successively moved the United States to remove their ability to go through normal financial channels. Up until a few years ago the Cubans had to put cash on the barrel before they received the products that they wanted. Now they are allowed to deal with bank transactions and loans, but in the context of the last two or three years they have actually reduced the amount of food that they are reporting from the United States.
So I think that we can see that, look forward to the Cubans being very selective, as Alex has pointed out, about what deals they make. They have just made a deal with a major tractor company in the United States for small, economized tractors that really fit their natural environment. And they’re going to keep a lot of people in [queue] making decisions on what will be best for the development of Cuban citizens and for maintaining the sovereignty of the country. And they are going to be very selective in looking at the competition that is offered by other major financial foreign investors who want to work with the Cubans.
PERIES: Now, and finally let me ask both of you, absent from President Obama’s agenda in Cuba thus far is a meeting with former president Fidel Castro. Any thoughts on why that is happening? Or not happening?
MAIN: I don’t think either side is particularly interested. And there was a comment from the press bureau of the White House earlier, where, you know, they effectively confirmed that. Neither Fidel nor Obama has expressed interest in such a meeting, and you know, I think Fidel, as James has pointed out, Fidel has, you know, really withdrawn from sort of daily politics, and I think it’s very important, you know, if anything, symbolically that the primary meeting be with Raul, Raul Castro. You know, and that there shouldn’t be a distraction from that with a meeting with Fidel.
PERIES: And James, your response.
EARLY: Of course, the U.S. press will not likely talk in the mainstream press very much about the fact that the prime minister of Venezuela arrived several days before President Obama, and the congressional members, and the private sector members, and the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and others who are accompanying him, and that on two days on [inaud.] this past Friday on the 18th, President Maduro was formally received by Raul Castro. And this is a part of a pragmatic realpolitik in which the inference is that you cannot sort of move softly with us, but also move very aggressively against our major allies in the region. And of course, Venezuela is a major ally.
So the Cubans are really playing a really deep and broad political scenario here, not just a bilateral relationship with the United States, and making very clear that their fealties, their loyalties are within the region. They’re not going to be seduced by the [blandishments] of this rapprochement with the United States.
PERIES: All right. James Early, Alex Main, I thank you both for joining us today, and we hope to have you back, hopefully, on Tuesday when president will be leaving Cuba.
EARLY: Thank you.
MAIN: Thanks, Sharmini.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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