Obama's Visit to Cuba

Obama is not interested in lifting the blockade from the Cuban public sector, because this would strengthen the Cuban socialist project, and the United States doesn’t want anything in Cuba that is reminiscent of socialism.

During his brief visit to Cuba in March 2016, Barack Obama plans to meet with the Cuban political opposition advocating changes in that country. He publicly notified the Cuban government thereof as a preliminary condition for his visit. He also stated that he intends to discuss disagreements with the Cuban leaders.

Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, said that Obama will focus on the need to turn the page, leave behind the complexities of the US-Cuban relations, and expand opportunities for US business in Cuba.

The complete lifting of the embargo is Havana’s main requirement. To do so, Obama will need to convince Congress to lift it. However, this is unlikely to happen any time soon. According to a congressman who recently led a delegation of lawyers to Cuba, the necessary changes to legislation which could put an end to the embargo, will not be discussed in Congress until late 2016.

The Republican candidates of Cuban descent, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, strongly criticize Obama’s rapprochement with the Cuban government. However, they don’t have the same voice as before now that they are trailing Donald Trump in the presidential race by a wide margin.

According to Cuban economist Esteban Morales, closing down the prison on the illegally occupied naval base at Guantanamo Bay would be simpler and cheaper than returning this territory to Cuba. By doing so, Obama would have raised the value of his legacy with minimal effort.

This line of thinking became clear in late 2008, when, in his final campaign speech, Obama stressed that he will negotiate with Cuba, but will not lift the economic blockade.

Indeed, the current US president canceled restrictive measures imposed on Cuba by G.W. Bush, but at the same time tightened the blockade by launching a carrot and stick policy, one which turned out to be, according to Morales, the most effective form of communication with the Cuban leadership compared to all previous attempts.

In particular, Esteban Morales points out the following measures:

In the first half of 2009, Obama lifted all restrictions on Cuban citizens regarding money transfers, visas, visiting relatives, etc. At the same time, he tightened the screws on the financial sector by introducing sanctions against international banks for doing business with Cuba and establishing more barriers to the new but insignificant trade between Cuba and America.

The measures adopted in January and September of 2015 and on January 26, 2016 are clearly one-sided and favor those social groups, which, the Americans hope, will be instrumental in changing the regime on the island. I refer to the active opposition.

Restrictions on possible relations with the companies that are owned by the state of Cuba, the persistent ban by the Cuban authorities on the use of the US dollar by Cubans, complicating their ability to take out a loan – all of this suggests what the US banking policy on the island will be like. Most likely, it will lead to a "parallel economy," one which will have no place for the Cuban state. And this means there will be no export opportunities. The government of the island will only be able to carry out instructions, but will never be part of the decision-making process.

On the other hand, Obama is clearly willing to show flexibility in all matters conducive to strengthening the US presence in Cuba, such as: increasing the number of direct flights; promoting cultural and scientific exchanges; improving access for the American mass culture to Cuba; supporting joint cultural projects; and increasing the amount of information coming from the United States. All this will greatly expand the material and ideological basis behind his project to topple Castro’s regime.

Thus, President Obama has tried to hamper the ability of the Cuban government to influence the new economic model and, on the other hand, has promoted everything that can contribute to the success of his economic project as an alternative to the existing socially-oriented economy. His stake is on the nascent middle class in Cuba, which could contribute to the creation of an alternative political spectrum in that country.

Loans, the dollar, finance, joint projects, trade benefits and even donations will be put to work in such a way as to exclude the possibility of the Cuban government ever benefitting from them. All the possible benefits, permits and concessions will be provided only to those who will be able to act completely independent from the state economy. For them, the blockade will cease to exist. President Obama can easily remove this part of the blockade even without having to turn to Congress.

Obama is not interested in lifting the blockade from the Cuban public sector, because this would strengthen the Cuban socialist project, and the United States doesn’t want anything in Cuba that is reminiscent of socialism.

Here are several examples of this dual situation surrounding the economic blockade. In the telecommunications sector, the US companies will be able to export their technology to the island under a license issued by the US Department of Commerce. Thus, the Cubans will be able to buy computers, software, mobile phones, television sets, etc. from the United States. Private Cuban companies will also be able to buy US-made construction materials and agricultural equipment. State-owned enterprises won’t be able to do that. By the same token, only some of the goods produced by the private sector will be exported to the United States. Given that vast numbers of goods and services in Cuba are produced by state-owned companies, these measures will have a fairly limited effect.

This convincingly proves that Obama will continue to use the blockade as an instrument of economic and political pressure on Cuba. Why else would he impose penalties on international banks which dare to deal with Cuba? And this is being done by a president who has repeatedly called on the US Congress to lift the economic blockade of the island.

Everything that Barack Obama has done so far has served to improve his image and to create his legacy and a chance to occupy a prominent place in the US political history rather than to establish good relations with Havana.

However, the changes are clearly there for everyone to see. Cuba is now placed in a different political context as the United States is clearly interested in recognizing that country as a full-fledged partner. At the same time, other countries are no longer hiding their interest in working in Cuba, since this is no longer viewed as a jab at Washington.

There is now a certain measure of political stability, especially when compared with recent history when the Cuban-American relations were strained to the bursting point.

There is noticeable progress in a number of issues. Life appears easier for ordinary citizens and the lifting of restrictions related to remittances, travel, visas, various cultural and private exchanges, as well as the increased number of flights, expanded tourism, direct mail, closer family ties, etc. have all contributed a great deal to this. Talks are underway with the United States regarding possible joint solutions in fighting drug trafficking, environmental protection, migration policies, telephony and scientific cooperation.

But very important questions posed by Cuba, such as the return of Guantánamo and the actual lifting of the embargo, still remain unresolved. The resolution of these issues is a prerequisite for further normalization of the US-Cuban relations. So far, though, the overall outcome of the process can be assessed as positive.

During his visit to Cuba, the US president should focus on those aspects of his policy that contribute to normalizing relations between the two countries, rather than on the perpetual stand-off between the current Cuban government and internal opposition by supporting the latter. (Material from the article by Esteban Morales "¿Qué quiere Obama con su visita a Cuba?", Juventud Rebelde, 26/02/2016).

The geopolitical strategy of Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba

NODAL columnist Paola Bianco provided a good description of the current geopolitical situation around the globe. She wrote that the rise of new global players, such as China and Russia, which, in recent years, have been building up their presence in the Western Hemisphere and challenging the absolute leadership of the Americans there through investment in strategic industries, development of trade relations, and the strengthening of political relations between the two powers and Latin America as a single unit, displaying an ability to express identical positions in the multipolar international organizations – all these things combined complete the picture of the United States’ isolation in the region. According to State Secretary Kerry, the US policy toward Cuba has to a greater extent led to isolation of the United States than Cuba.

The desire to break out of this isolation partially explains the new US policy towards Cuba.

However, this turnaround in the Obama administration is part of a larger geopolitical strategy, which aims to reduce its rivals’ impact on the regional and global scene. Whether it be through, for example, imposing sanctions on Russia over the situation surrounding Crimea, or through indirect measures, such as maintaining low oil prices, which came about as the result of Saudi Arabia’s refusal to reduce production quotas, or by making sustained investment in developing shale oil fields, a shift which led to the sharp reduction in Russia’s oil reserves and the ruble’s fall, which also adversely affected the Chinese economy as well.

Falling oil prices also affected the preparations for talks between Cuba and the United States, since Venezuela and its Petrocaribe preferential oil supply program were hit hard by the fall in prices. The program allowed Cuba to receive Venezuelan oil in exchange for medical and educational services. Because of the new crisis, this program has now been jeopardized, and this could aggravate the economic blockade (Paola Bianco, “Procesos y Geopolítica del cambio histórico Cuba-EEUU", www.nodal.am, 2014).

Relations between Russia and Cuba

During his visit to Havana on July 11, 2014, President Putin unexpectedly announced the cancellation of 90 percent of the Cuban debt to Moscow, which once amounted to $35 billion, but which now is a mere $3.5 billion. This remainder, as stated by Moscow, will be invested in joint projects on the island (BBC website in Spanish, July 11, 2014). In addition, the Russian side, in close cooperation with Aeroflot, is going to invest in the construction of an airport in the city of San Antonio de los Baños. The Russian oil companies Rosneft and Zarubezhneft are interested in signing an agreement on joint exploration of oil fields off the Cuban shore.

On October 20, 2015, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev signed an executive order which paves the way for a loan in the amount of $1.2 billion to Cuba for the construction of thermal power plants across the island. This project marks the beginning of cooperation between Russian Inter RAO and Cuban Unión Eléctrica. In addition, on the same day, the Russian Government issued a directive to grant a loan in the amount of $100 million (88 million euros) to Cuba for upgrading the Antillana de Acero Metal Works (EFE agency website, October 20, 2014). These decisions were taken in the wake of a meeting between Vladimir Putin and Raul Castro at the UN General Assembly anniversary session in New York.

Importantly, prior to his visit to Mexico, Pope Francis called on Cuba to meet with Patriarch Kirill in the presidential hall of Havana Airport on February 12, 2016. Mexican philosopher and essayist Carlos Herrera de la Fuente believes that this meeting is of great political significance. International media unanimously dubbed the meeting historic, because the hierarchs of the Catholic and Orthodox churches have not met since the split in 1054. But what was really important was the step by the Pope toward Russia and its president – a conservative and an ally of Patriarch Kirill. Thus, Cuba assumed the role of a mediator between the Vatican and Moscow amid the growing international tensions over Russia’s reunification of Crimea and the ongoing conflict with Ukraine. In this regard, the Mexican political analyst Alfredo Jaliffe named Pope Francis the first "multi-polar Pope" who understands the alignment of power between the three modern superpowers (the EU, Russia and China) (Carlos Herrera de la Fuente, “Cuba-EEUU: las razones del imperio”, Portal Aristegui Noticias, marzo 4, 2016).

A few days after the Pope returned from Mexico, the US government announced Obama’s planned visit to Cuba on March 21-22.

In other words, we can say that the American policy toward Cuba has so far been nothing more than a belated reaction to the economic and political successes of Russia and China on that island. In closing, Herrera de la Fuente says that the issue is not about a friendly turn toward Havana, but rather an attempt to contain Russia and China’s expansion in the Americas.The major threat to the United States is, of course, not Cuba, but Nicaragua, the main ally of the Castro government. Nicaragua launched the construction of a transoceanic canal with the participation of Chinese capital, and such a development seriously affects US interests.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.