Some in Cuba fear that an influx of US investment and trade will create an increasingly assertive middle class which will demand more political freedom, writes Peter Fabricius.
Cuba’s deputy foreign minister Medina Gonzalez, visiting South Africa this week, urged Pretoria to support his country’s campaign for the lifting of America’s economic blockade against it.
Under Obama’s new thaw in relations with Cuba, the US has lifted parts of the embargo – allowing trade in US dollars of a few products. But the blockade essentially remains intact, Gonzalez told Independent Newspapers.
And in a press briefing at Freedom Park, Gonzalez said the US economic, trade and financial blockade was still the main obstacle to Cuban’s development.
One might have imagined that open economic relations with the rest of the world would have boosted development to much higher levels than now, if the government’s economic policies were right. But leave that aside for now;
Despite Gonzalez’s complaint, not everyone in Cuba’s government is thrilled about the thawing of relations with the US, including the total lifting of the embargo which will surely come not long from now.
Hardliners in Havana evidently see Washington’s engagement as a manoeuvre to effect regime change, through the more subtle means of implanting insidious “neo-liberal” economics, rather than by sanctions and isolation.
According to the Foreign Affairs journal, such hardliners, for example, rebuffed Google Ideas’ offer to install a mobile wireless infrastructure for the nation, free of charge.
Second Vice-President José Ramón Machado Ventura said America was doing so “to penetrate us and do ideological work for a new conquest”.
The ultimate fear of such sceptics is no doubt that an influx of US investment and trade will not only boost the economy, it will also create a growing and increasingly assertive middle class which will demand more political freedom and influence, that is, more democracy.
This concern is hardly surprising since it has been offered by the Obama administration itself as a justification for its change of Cuban policy. When he re-opened the US embassy in Havana in August last year, US Secretary of State John Kerry manifested a carrot-and-stick approach to Cuba, saying the economic embargo was unlikely to be lifted fully until Havana effected human rights reforms.
And the Cuban-American group #CubaNow has also pushed for dialogue and investment as a better way to promote democracy, human rights, and open markets in Cuba.
The warming of relations with Havana has inevitably also angered the powerful Miami-based anti-Castro lobby of Cuban expatriates.
Ironically some of them have also invoked the “neo-liberal” argument against Obama’s Cuba policy.
Foreign Affairs reported, for example, that Miami-based political analyst Frank Resillez had described the new US strategy toward Cuba as “basically a process of colonisation; We are going to colonise Cuba again, just like the Spaniards did, just like the Soviets did for 30 years”.
Gonzalez, though, firmly rejected any suggestion that the thawing of relations with the US would impose unwanted economic or political changes on Cuba.
Cuba had been “updating its economic and social model” since well before the change in relations with the US. This was a “sovereign” and “independent” process which Havana had undertaken, on its own, in the best interests of the country.
Cuba was “diversifying” relations with the whole world and not just the US, he added.
Oddly, though, just as Gonzalez was talking about Cuba updating its economic model, back home his government was announcing important reforms to that model, legalising small and medium-sized private businesses.
Was this a response to the US thaw? In his interview with Independent Newspapers, Gonzalez had complained that Washington still insisted that products exported from Cuba to the US had to be produced by private enterprises, though most companies were still state-owned.
That US policy certainly looks like another example of carrot-and-stick “neo-liberalism” at work. But the legalisation of small and medium private enterprises also suggests Cuba is nonetheless adjusting policies to fit.
“US policy is not the anvil on which Cuba’s future will be forged,” Kerry stated when he opened the US embassy last August. He would have to say that, to show the necessary respect for Cuba’s sovereignty.
The reality of whether the new policy does nudge Cuba closer to free-market democracy, though, will have to be assessed as it plays out over the months and years ahead.