Our Moment in Cuba?

Last month I had the privilege of joining a study tour to Cuba with former members of Congress — sponsored by the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (FMC).

We met with government and Communist Party officials, members of the National Assembly and Foreign Ministry, artists, scholars, academics, economists, entrepreneurs, even cigar workers. Cubans feel genuine optimism that the recent normalization of relations with the United States may usher in a new era of cooperation. But to many Americans, Cuba remains a bit of a riddle, a nation defined by the competing myths, images, and political interests that have germinated over a half century of confrontation. What follows is the report I wrote for FMC — my attempt to make sense of a country in transition and what that means for the relationship between our two nations.

Overview

Cuba is a nation in gradual transition, one primed to pry open its economy, culture, and, to some extent, its political system. The word “gradual” is important here: Those looking for an imminent inflection point when Cuba transforms itself into an American-style political and economic system will likely be disappointed. Rather, Cubans are wrestling with ways to integrate increased business investment, a more entrepreneurial economy, and greater cultural openness into a socialist system that to them prioritizes the common good over individual acquisitiveness and political freedom.

It’s a tightrope Cuba wants to walk, but given nearly six decades of socialization under their system and a resolve to be the masters of their own fate, they seem to be betting that the pride and self-determination they have cultivated over the years will serve as a firewall against the freewheeling impulses of American capitalism and democracy that their current leaders believe will corrupt their country.

But just to be sure, the Communist Party and the state will — for the immediate future at a minimum — keep a tight rein over their economy and politics. What were once the rigid boundaries of Cuban socialism have without doubt become more relaxed in recent years — society now has more flex, much like a rubber band — but make no mistake that those boundaries still exist and the Cuban leadership will make sure they are not broken.

To many Cubans, the opening of relations with the United States is a sign of renewal and hope, even if not tangible change. The question for the United States is whether — and how much — we are willing to engage a nation that, despite our determination to rebuild it in our own image, will likely emerge as a softer form of socialism with a hybrid economy, managed political expression, and ongoing even if loosened constraints on human rights and economic activity.

The Cuban Perspective on Relations with the United States

Cubans have a long view of their history. To them, the battles and revolutions of yesteryear have an immediacy and currency that shapes their contemporary thinking. Most important, they see their history as one long struggle for independence and self-determination. While they acknowledge the potential for a growing American influence on their economy and society, they were fairly clear how they imagined the emerging relationship: They aren’t seeking absolute equality with the United States — that to them is unrealistic and naive given America’s might and power — but rather “sovereign equality,” a notion they defined as mutual respect between two independent nations.

We Americans may see our foreign policy agenda as benign, but to Cuban leaders America continues to pose an existential threat, and our continuing unwillingness to renounce the goal of regime change stokes those concerns. At least in the Cuban historical narrative, the United States has repeatedly tried to overthrow and undermine the Cuban government from the very day Fidel Castro took power in 1959. Theirs is a long list of economic, political, and military provocations from the United States; they may be prideful as a nation, but they nonetheless portray themselves as victims of American might and manipulation.

To Cubans, American policy seems unfair and irrational. From their perspective, American politicians bow to what the Cubans see as the outsize influence of the Cuban exile community in Miami. Why, they ask, are all Cubans who make their way to the United States automatically considered political refugees with all the benefits of that status conferred upon them — yet these same “refugees” then travel back and forth to Cuba with no repercussions from the Cuban government? Why, they ask, does the United States curry favor with nations such as Saudi Arabia or Egypt which have far worse human rights records — yet continue, under the rationale of human rights, to enforce policies designed to strangle Cuban society? Why, they also ask, can Americans legally travel to North Korea yet must jump through bureaucratic and legal hoops to visit Cuba? Doesn’t all of that amount to hypocrisy?

When pressed, they accept that human rights is a legitimate issue. They then claim a willingness to address it — but only if they no longer feel existentially threatened by the United States. Stop funding our dissidents, they say, and stop trying to change our government and entice our people to emigrate, and we will feel far more comfortable opening up the political bandwidth in our country. Their logic, in effect, is to pin responsibility for their human rights violations on the United States — that their political restrictions and detentions are merely defensive reactions to feeling threatened by the most powerful country on earth.

At face value, Cubans seem to be saying this: If the United States ends the embargo and renounces regime change, Cuba would become a freer society than what they allow today. The question facing the United States is how much leverage we are willing to relinquish based on Cuba’s word that they will do so.

Openings

It’s unclear what constitutes acceptable dissent in Cuba, but it’s clear that those who cross the line can be met with government suppression, infiltration, and even detention. That said, the line seems far more pliable than in years past. Cuban academics acknowledge their country’s human rights issues and openly discuss the shortcomings of Cuba’s centrally planned economy. Artists regularly challenge the limits on freedom, boldly so at times — even Fidel Castro isn’t immune to creative skewering. Young people gather at internet hot spots throughout Havana, and it’s not unusual to hear jokes about the system and its absurdities. The notion that it’s a nation of secret police and mass surveillance with soldiers on every corner just isn’t true — in fact the Cuban army is fairly small. It may be a controlled and authoritarian system with limited tolerance for dissent, but it’s far more relaxed than our popular image of such countries.

Tightly controlled societies typically elevate their supreme leaders and celebrate them with murals, statues and prominent imagery. But travel through Cuba and there are no larger-than-life images of Fidel or Raul Castro. Apparently, Fidel decreed years ago that the revolution should not be personified by any living leader — socialism is not about idolatry, he claimed. This may seem dissonant with the power he and his brother have accumulated, but the lack of public imagery is striking. Che Guevara and other late revolutionary leaders are prominent, and even John Lennon and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg have statues, but not Fidel or Raul. When asked what will happen when Fidel passes on, the answer was wry and simple: there will be a funeral.

What’s clear is that Raul Castro, upon taking power in 2006, began a process of reform designed to shake up the sediments of Cuban society. He sent government representatives to workplaces to hear concerns and seek ideas. His government loosened restrictions on entrepreneurial activity, particularly restaurants which are multiplying throughout Cuba’s cities. Although Cubans have free health care and education as well as subsidized food and housing, the average Cuban makes the paltry equivalent of $20USD per month, primarily in government jobs — but instead of clamping down on the underground gig economy in which Cubans seeking to improve their lot take on odd jobs, such as fixing old cars, the government has given it a wink and a nod. Cuba also is investing in a special economic zone at the Mariel Port — around 25 miles west of Havana — to encourage foreign investment in technology, industry, and agriculture.

Cubans argue that their political system has become more fluid, that it’s not necessary to be a Communist Party member to hold a position in the National Assembly, that anyone who has enough local support can run for office. Indeed there are many local officials who aren’t party members, and the National Assembly now includes religious advocates and even some non-Communists. But it’s also clear that party membership remains the surest ticket to power, and those without it face a steep climb to get elected especially at the highest levels, with some claiming that their posters are defaced and their candidacy branded as counter-revolutionary. Cuba will be rethinking the size and role of its National Assembly in April 2016, so it’s important to see if the rhetoric of greater openness is met with real and tangible change.

National Assembly members claim they have real input into government policy — that they are not merely a rubber stamp. That independence will be tested in 2018 when Raul Castro, now 84 years old, steps down and the National Assembly will be tasked with choosing a new president. National Assembly members are coy when discussing succession, and perhaps out of pride they say the decision will be theirs. When asked about the presumed successor, the 55-year old Miguel Diaz-Canel, currently First Vice President of the Council of State, few are willing to commit or discuss. What’s clear is that in two years the head of state will not be a Castro.

Cuba boasts near universal literacy, free higher education, and a health care system that many consider a model for the type of preventive care and universal coverage it provides. Cuba has more doctors and dentists per capita than the United States, and in fact Cuba has “paid” for imported oil and other goods by sending its doctors to other countries. Life expectancy in Cuba is now 78. To Cuba, its educated and healthy workforce will be an asset for companies who invest there.

Also apparent is the ease with which Cubans have embraced gender equality. Women hold high positions throughout government and seem to be on the forefront of the entrepreneurs opening restaurants. It’s an unselfconscious gender equality — it’s simply evident, not proclaimed. Ease also characterizes interactions among black and white Cubans, and blacks seem well represented in National Assembly and government positions — though Cubans admit that racial disparities remain and the country still has a good amount of work to do before claiming anything close to equality.

Though freedom of speech and assembly remain limited, religious freedom seems to be expanding in Cuba. In 1992 Cuba substituted the word “secular” for “atheist” when describing the state in its constitution, and since then Cubans have felt far more comfortable flocking to church and expressing their faith. The Catholic Church in particular has grown, less as a counterpoint to the state than as a safe haven for spiritual expression, and even the Castro brothers celebrated the 2015 visit of Pope Francis. It’s less clear how much this emerging freedom covers other denominations. The small Jewish community appears to have government support, mainstream Protestants claim growing membership, and exchanges with Arab nations have given Islam a foothold. However the government seems wary of evangelical Protestants and reports suggest that evangelical meetings have been disrupted and their makeshift churches destroyed.

Cubans may resent the power and policies of the United States, but at the same time they embrace American culture and claim a kinship with the American people. Because of the embargo, Cuba has no obligation to respect American copyright laws and therefore Cubans air pirated versions of first-run American films on television, sometimes seeing them before they hit the theaters in the U.S. Baseball and music create strong ties as well. Simply from a cultural sense, Cubans have a hard time understanding why there can’t be better relations.

Challenges

Cubans will say that the U.S. embargo remains the greatest stumbling block to a growing economy and a more open society, and there is little question that access to American capital, goods, and culture will serve as a catalyst for transformation and change. But as much as progress depends on ending the embargo, it is far from sufficient to address some of the deep structural problems besetting the Cuban economy.

The list is long and daunting. Certainly the embargo makes raising capital difficult, and without access to dollars it is difficult at best to create the type of banking system that can finance public works and economic growth. Perhaps the only regular source of capital comes from Cubans living in the United States, who can transfer funds back to their families in Cuba, an ad hoc system that rewards only those entrepreneurs whose relatives have left the country. Cuba also has a binary currency — pesos for Cubans and convertible pesos, known as CUCs, for imports and foreign exchange — but while the government is hoping to unify its currency, they are proceeding slowly for fear that it could lead to devaluation and the destabilization of certain state companies.

A major obstacle to private sector growth and initiative is the complete lack of a wholesale market in Cuba. A restaurant, for example, must buy most of its ingredients from a retail state store, meaning that it costs more to make a meal and therefore cuts into profits and the ability to invest and expand. Cuban officials admit the need to create a wholesale sector, but entrepreneurs say they have seen little progress.

Housing is at a crisis point as multiple generations typically live together in often substandard conditions. The lack of privacy has led to two adverse consequences: a high divorce rate and low birth rate, the latter creating a long-term problem in an aging society without sufficient replacement workers to support them. Certain neighborhoods of Havana are so run down with crumbling buildings and collapsing walls that it was surprising — from an American context — to see families living there.

The infrastructure is aging and in many places decaying, and without sufficient capital to repair and improve the electrical grid, water works and transportation system, it places economic progress at risk and potentially dampens the interest of even the most motivated foreign investors.

With its literate and educated population Cuba should be positioned to monetize its human capital and make greater inroads in technology and the knowledge economy. But it is hampered by one fundamental fact: There is no internet and digital infrastructure in the country. Notwithstanding the various urban hotspots which draw clusters of young people who pay to go online, the internet for the most part is unavailable elsewhere. For the Cuban government, the internet is not only a technological challenge but a political one as well — because the government, which controls all media, does not want to provide citizens with access to dissenting viewpoints.

The Upshot

Think about Cuba as a nation torn between a desire for transition and a suspicion of transformation. What Cubans appear to want is a freer and more fluid society that does not relinquish its independence and core socialist principles. Cubans clearly want a more open relationship with the United States, one built on economic opportunity and cultural affinity. But they also fear a reprise of what they fought against years ago — American control of their politics and economy.

There is no question that American businesses would like to gain a foothold in Cuba — and there is no question that an end to the embargo will set in motion the type of economic activity and infrastructure building that can reverberate throughout Cuba not only economically but politically as well. Insofar as democratic rights tend to expand with a growing middle class, it is in America’s interest to see the type of economic growth that can raise the standard of living throughout Cuba.

For years, the United States has made an end to the embargo contingent upon greater democratic and economic openness in Cuba — that ending the embargo is a reward for substantial change. But perhaps there is an alternative perspective: that ending the embargo can be a spur to accelerate and expand the gradual changes Cuba has been undertaking over the last decade. The U.S. has long asked Cuba for good faith evidence that it will open its political and economic system. Cuba seeks good faith evidence that the United States will once and for all cease its efforts to undermine the Cuban system. Perhaps the key to a new era in relations between our neighboring countries is a little bit of give on both sides.

Lenny head shot 2014A former speechwriter and strategist for causes, candidates, and members of Congress, Leonard Steinhorn has written two books on American politics and culture and frequently writes for major print and online publications. He is currently a professor of communication at American University and a CBS News political analyst.

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