The normalization of the US-Cuban relations is a step so long-awaited that only the most faithful and orthodox fanatics can stand against it.
Unsurprisingly, despite the ideological differences of the media involved, one particular cartoon has been readily reproduced in printed and online media of the Western Hemisphere. Ernesto "Che" Guevara asks young Fidel Castro: "Will we ever have diplomatic relations with the Yankees again?" To which Fidel replies: "It'll be the day when there is a black president at the White House and a Pope, who is an Argentine like you".
The world has indeed changed beyond recognition. Yet, until the current round of talks between Havana and Washington the paradigm of the US-Cuban relationship continued resembling that of 1959-1962. This was not normal, obviously.
One obvious and down to earth reason why the relationship must have been reviewed is… the sharks. Waters of the straits between Florida, the Bahamas and Cuba are swarming with sharks. Although numerous books were written about secret communication between Washington and Havana, it was absolutely unclear who would communicate with whom when sharks attack another raft with refugees (or another yacht with ordinary fishermen) sinking in the straits. It is doubtlessly wrong for two countries, which are so close to each other geographically, not to have a proper relationship.
On the other hand, the extent of the normalization should not be overestimated. In any case, it is impossible to miss the enormous building called the US Interests Section on the Malecon embankment of Havana. A similar section of Cuba has been functioning in Washington for a long time, too. Ok, let them be dubbed embassies. So what?
The real question is: what will actually happen to the blockade (according to Cuban terminology) or the embargo (according to the US political vocabulary)?
On the one hand, the US will remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, eases some travel restrictions and even allows American tourists to bring Cuban souvenirs. On the other hand, most anti-Cuban measures were stipulated by federal laws (adopted by the Congress), not by presidential decrees (which Obama can annul on his own). Considering the influence of Cuban-American Republicans in both houses (who share a radical sentiment towards both Castro and President Obama), expecting lifting of the blockade-embargo tomorrow or even the day after is off base.
In this regard, speculations about the impact of the normalization of the US-Cuba relations on the Cuba-Russia relations are only partly justified.
Moreover, prior to the historic meeting of Barack Obama and Raul Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, the Cuban leader had attended the Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in Costa Rica. Russia was the only non-American state mentioned in his speech there.
At my personal level, I should stress the readiness of the Cuban side to become the host of our NGO's conference "Soviet-Latin American cooperation in WW2 and modernity", which was held in Havana on 5-6 May. Together with our NGO, the Bering-Bellingshausen Institute for the Americas (IBBA), and the Russian Historical Society, the event was co-organized by such truly systemic Havana organizations as the Institute of Cuban History (operating under the patronage of the ruling PCC Central Committee) and the Raul Roa Higher Institute of International Relations (ISRI, a branch of the Cuban Foreign Ministry). Characteristically, ISRI was represented both by its directors Isabel Allende and Jorge Casals (who belong to the generations, which studied in the USSR, speak Russian, etc) and young students and post-graduates.
In other words, not only the succession is evident, but Cubans are also eager to represent their island as a sort of a "trampoline" for Russia towards the rest Latin America. In this regard, I will clarify that the conference was truly international: besides the Chairman of the Russian State Duma, Sergey Naryshkin, and his colleague from the National Assembly of Cuba, Esteban Lazo, it was attended by diplomats, politicians, political analysts, and historians from Honduras, El Salvador, Uruguay and other countries. The Cubans were ready to welcome other Latin Americans to a Russia-related event, while the other Latin Americans were ready to attend. This is notable.
However, several "parallel" issues do arise.
Firstly, despite certain animation of the Russian and Cuban economic cooperation, the current ties are only a wan shadow of what they used to be in the Soviet times.
However, secondly, the fact that 90% of Cuba's foreign trade was with the Soviet Union by the end of 1980s, was a GRIMACE too. Interestingly, it was only the USSR and not other COMECON countries, like Poland or Czechoslovakia, which was ready to provide Cuba with that scale of shipments. In other words, rational economics (not to mention the market economy) cannot do wonders, which were affordable to a "mobilization" economy of the USSR. Notably, a few years ago, after assessments made in the modern times, at least one large Russian company gave up on cooperation with Cuba, despite the sentiments it felt towards Havana. It figured that the "shoulder" lent to Cuba would not bring the expected rate of profit (however, it is unknown whether the same rate of profit would be left without a hail today).
Nevertheless, thirdly, there is no justification for Moscow's instant switch from the COMECON convertible rubles to freely convertible currency in trade with Havana in the autumn of 1990. The Gorbachev's Soviet Union practically ditched the almost completed nuclear power plant in Juragua, a marvelous refinery in Cienfuegos, nickel mines and so on. Cubans are still offended by this. These hard feelings alone are a serious psychological obstacle in the relations between Cuba and the new Russia - US-Cuban "normalization" notwithstanding.
Still, fourthly, the quarter-century old grievance is relative. Moscow's recent write-off of practically all Cuban debts to the USSR enables Russian business to look at Cuba under a different angle. However, this measure makes Cuba more attractive to other foreign investors, who, unlike Russians, lack the logistical "shoulder". In this aspect, Russia may face competition from unexpected sides.
One of such unexpected sides is the United States. Americans are a numerous lot and they are too close. Take the issue of visits from the US to Cuba. Until recently, an illegal visit of a US citizen to Cuba was punished by the US Treasury by a fine of $50,000. The restriction is being lifted within the "normalization" process. Although the US government has only permitted visits to Cuba to a few categories of its citizens, the absolute figures of Americans willing to visit Cuba made an immediate dramatic rise. There are hundreds and thousands American visitors exploring Cuba: you can see them everywhere now.
There is, of course, an issue of how all of this will affect Cuban domestic agenda.
On the one hand, the island has grown colossal weariness from the peculiarities of "real socialism": a very sad state of the utilities, humiliating food rationing, total deficit of elementary manufactured goods, especially for personal hygiene. The realities pull Cubans into the world of consumerism. The center of that world is only 90 miles away.
On the other hand, the Cuban independence is twice as young in comparison with nearly all other Latin American countries save Panama. That is one of the obvious reasons why Cubans have been one of the most nationalistic countries of the region before, during and after the revolution of 1959. Interestingly, only two foreigners have ever been honoured with Cuban citizenship: General Máximo Gómez (a native of the Dominican Republic known as the Liberator), and the (in)famous Argentinian revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara.
The normalization of relations with the US means that Washington may have its explicable reservations about the Marxist-Leninist ideology, but has recognized the sovereign constitutional system of the republic. And that system is peculiar by any standards. For example, contrary to stereotypes, Cuba has not got a unipersonal presidency. What it has is a collective presidency, known as the Council of State; under Raul Castro the structure has acquired ever more a collective feel, future decision-making will require even more compromises.
Thus, the hopes of Miami Cubans that the normalization of relations with the US would entail their domination are groundless. They are even more groundless because the Cuban socialism, just as the Soviet variety, has passed the "point of no return". Unlike what happened after the collapse of Soviet-style socialism in Eastern and Central Europe, former private homes will not be readily returned to their owners, who had fled to the United States. Humble working class families, who inhabit those magnificent buildings, would hardly want to move out. Not to mention the necessity for former owners to invest millions into renovations, badly needed after decades of communist neglect and sanctions.
Finally, the ruling PCC Central Committee has a special analytical group operating for several years now, which carefully studies the mistakes of the Soviet "perestroika", which led to the change of system. At the suggestion of these analysts, some key and profitable sectors of the economy were reserved for what would be called curators. For example, the Gaviota Tourism Group S.A. is managed by Cuba's Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. Should privatization ever start in Cuba, it would hardly be solely voucher-based and the island would be protected from automatic takeover by the American capital.
In other words, the normalization of the US-Cuba relations is certainly a victory of common sense. However, it is not a straightforward victory of America. And, with rational elaboration, it is certainly not a defeat for Russia.