By; Luke Gould
As the world lauds Wednesday’s announcements from the White House to normalize five decades of extremely tense relations with Cuba, there are those eyeing the situation with caution. Many understand that the next few years may be the most challenging the revolutionary government has ever faced.
Cuba represents an alternative to the neo-liberal capitalist development model, which is currently in practice in much of Latin America. New outside elements could drastically alter the nature of the Cuban model and government. Restored relations with the US will provide both opportunities and pitfalls for the government in Havana. It must exercise extreme caution if it wishes to uphold its revolutionary and anti-capitalist character.
Before understanding why diplomatic relations will prove a challenge, one must grasp some Cuban history.
The current geo-political situation in Cuba is the result of American meddling in foreign affairs. The US became involved with Cuba during its war with Spain at the turn of the 20th century. The American administration removed Spain from Cuba, birthing a new independent nation. National sovereignty, however, was a short lived dream.
The US effectively wrote Cuba’s constitution and, through the Platt Amendment of said document, guaranteed its own right to intervene in Cuban affairs. American capitalists bought up sizeable swaths of the Cuban economy. Foreign investors came to control the majority of Cuba’s primary good – sugarcane. The country became a popular tourist destination for Americans. Foreigners and well to do Cubans lived in opulence in the cities while living conditions for those in rural areas were some of the worst in the Western Hemisphere. Rural life was highlighted by high infant mortality, low life expectancy, illiteracy, nearly non-existent access to medical care, and exploitation by the part of wealthy landlords.
Cuba became, in practice, an economic colony of the United States. Its government a client regime designed to sell its people and their economy to American business interests. Ultimately, this small Caribbean nation contributed vastly to the economic power of the US and in return had its national sovereignty torn to shreds and it people reduced to mere penury.
It was under these conditions that Fidel and Raul Castro, Ernesto Guevara and the Movimiento 26 de Julio were able to take power from American backed Dictator Fulgencio Batista. Since this revolution seized power in 1959 it has nationalized foreign investments and embarked on a social project towards a more equal and just society. During this time the United States has used all means at its disposal to undermine the authorities in Havana. Despite being subject to efforts, including an unjustifiable economic blockade, a CIA backed invasion and multiple assassination attempts against Castro, Cuba has made large strides in its revolutionary program. This country’s anti-capitalist model has successfully provided, and legally ensures, education and healthcare to all citizens. It has armed its citizenry with political education and civic virtue though localized institutions. According to the WHO it has reduced infant mortality and extended life expectancy past American standards. By other WHO measurements Cuba produces more doctors per capita than any other nation. Nearly half of Cuba’s 70,000 doctors travel abroad every year to provide medical services in developing nations. The majority of doctors fighting Ebola in West Africa are not American or European, but Cuban. Economic inequality in Cuba is minimal. Racial and social equality is also defines the small island nation. In addition Cuba, according to several reports, is the only sustainably developing country in the world.
New relations with the US may provide an opportunity for economic growth to further the socialist program. This path, however, is a high alpine arête – a thin, rocky, windswept path in which one misstep will mean a long fall to certain death for the revolution.
The most impactful changes in new American policy towards Cuba will be the economic ones.
Tourism was excluded from the list, released Wednesday, of various categories of now authorized travel to Cuba. It will, very likely, be authorized in the near future. Travel for any motive will cause a massive influx of dollars and dollar wielding Americans to Cuba.
A flood of American travel could have far reaching consequences. It could cause economic growth, benefiting many segments of society. Tourism, however, could also increase, what is very minimal, economic inequality. Moreover amplified American tourism will, in many respects, be a cultural drain on Cuban society. There will be those travelers who arrive interested in the history, culture, and traditions of the country, there will even be those willing to volunteer and give back to Cuba, but most will simply be tourists concerned about the beach and cheap Pina Coladas. They will learn little of Cuban cultural and life and instead impose their own culture in one of the least Americanized nations on the globe. Turning the beaches of Cuba into Cancun and Cozumel style resorts will result in a fast economic gain, but at an ideological and cultural cost to the revolution.
This question of increasing tourist access reflects the pragmatic stances the government in Havana has been forced to take over the last 25 years. Before 1991, Cuba sold its primary good, sugar, to the Soviet Union at above market prices. This allowed the very small, very resource deprived, Caribbean nation to maintain its economy and survive the American trade embargo. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba was forced to turn to tourism; a dual currency system and the opening of a few, quite small and well regulated capitalist enterprises. These acts were in many senses a contradiction. Opening tourism goes against the fundamentals of the revolution for the previously mentioned reasons, but if tourism and a small modicum of private business had not been opened Cuba and the fiery rhetoric of revolution may have well have been extinguished.
As was the case with the general opening of tourism and some limited capitalism the Revolutionary Government in Havana most now go forward with caution. The authorities must set limits and well regulate this new influx in order to take advantage of the situation without sacrificing the society’s cultural authenticity and revolution’s moral and political values.
The issue of American tourism may be insignificant by comparison to the question of economic blockade. The normalization of relations will, in all likelihood, lead to the ending of the bloqueo, as it’s known in Cuba. The end of the blockade will imply better access to goods for average citizens, increased trade, and economic growth. The government can use these circumstances to strengthen its social and economic paradigm further empowering its citizens.
That being said, the end of the blockade will not imply the sudden ability for Cuba to function as a utopia. The situation will impose a set of difficult challenges for the authorities, who will be forced to rapidly adapt and effectively manage a new economic situation. Mismanagement could undermine the government.
The authorities for years have blamed the bloqueo for many of the country’s problems. Issues like limited internet access and economic stagnation are but a few examples. This is to a large extent accurate. The blockade has over the decades, undoubtedly and severally, hampered the Caribbean nation’s economy. That being said other factors, including mismanagement and ineffective planning by authorities, are also, at least partly, at fault.
The revolutionary government will be under great public pressure to strengthen the economy and will no longer have the blockade as a scapegoat. Like tourism, the end of the blockade will pose as a mountain of both opportunities and challenges.
Many are quick to judge Cuba and its government. The typical image of Cuba presented in mainstream America is as backwards, economically mismanaged, and politically authoritative. These accusations may have some degree of truth to them. But before condemning Cuba as a totalitarian State teetering on the edge of economic implosion, one must understand the circumstances which brought modern Cuba into existence. Additionally, one must understand the alternative role Cuba is playing in global affairs and its many accomplishments in the face of highly complex geographic, political and economic. So before celebrating a new embassy in Havana, the new availability of Cuban cigars and what could be the initial steps toward the end of the revolution it is perhaps it is necessary to take a moment to reflect on these accomplishments.
For five decades the revolution sought to build a more humane society, one in which individual gain and property are given second role to community and equality. Cuba has built a needs based economy in which every citizen is provided what they need to live and self-actualize. It is not an economy based on the passing whims of pleasure and desire. Nor is it subject to the auspices of an international system of creditors, bankers and businessmen. It is an economic and political system that presupposes the good of all of over the opulence of a few. Cuba’s experiment in the Caribbean is a noble one regardless of one’s personal ideological leanings. It is an experiment at a crossroads. One can only hope the revolution capable of using the correct finesse to quickly adapt and take advantage of this situation. However, if the revolution stumbles, sacrificing it character and politics for quick gains, it will surely fall to its death.
Photo Credit of National Monitor