The official diplomatic representation in the countries’ capitals will soon be established for the first time since the 1950s. The move is dubbed historic, but there is a lot to iron out. How long will it take and will all of the conditions welcomed by both sides?
Tune in to hear Solomon Comissiong, a public speaker and author of Your World News and Joseph Tulchin, senior scholar at the Woodraw Wilson International Center discussing the importance of the move with Agree or Disagree.
How historic is the opening to Cuba?
Joseph Tulchin: It is a major step. The President obviously decided that it was an appropriate time for an executive order along the list of things that he decided to do at the end of his administration. And the Cubans for their reasons have decided that it is an appropriate time for them to reach out a hand to the US. The process will be slow, but we hope that, at least, the beginning has been made and we can look forward to a gradual opening of relations between the two countries over the next 18-24 months.
Solomon Comissiong: I think it is extremely historic and, quite frankly, it is long-long overdue. The blockade and what the US has been trying to do in terms of isolating Cuba has done very little. And I think that was a major misstep by the US foreign policy, including a number of things that the US has done in terms of meddling with the Cuban affairs throughout the 50+ years.
Why is this happening now?
Joseph Tulchin: There are two factors, one on each side, that determine the timing of this. On the Cuban side, they have all but lost the economic support from the Government of Venezuela which was absolutely crucial to balancing the economic books in Cuba in the last decade. The decline in the price of oil and the disintegration of the Maduro Government in Venezuela indicates that in a very short period of time, if it hasn’t already began, the Venezuelans will be unable to provide the petroleum and inexpensive loans to the Cubans that are absolutely vital for the Government’s survival.
At the same time, on the Cuban side there’s been a major shift in Latin America in the effort to create a regional organization that is free of the US dominance or hegemony. And that organization, which is called CELAC, has accepted the Cubans and refused to allow the US and Canada to join. So, Cuba has a Latin American home to go to and for those reasons the Cubans have decided that it is very important to reach out and begin opening contacts with the US.
On the US’s side the existence of CELAC and the decline of the US hegemony have affected the Latin American policy in Washington. And Obama is as convinced, as the rest of us that the blockade has failed. And since he is no longer fearful of the power of the Cuban-American lobby in Washington, he thought that he could give voice and substance to what many of us have been arguing for the last 20-25 years, which is – to try to end the embargo.
Solomon Comissiong: I also think that the political prisoners’ swap was also a major factor. The Cubans for long time have been pushing to free the remaining Cuban five that were imprisoned here in the US.
The reestablishment of full relationship is somewhat conditional, according to Raul Castro, and is dependent on a number of concessions. Among the Cuban demands we have the compensation for the human and economic damage that the people suffered during the embargo years. And this is millions of dollars in compensation. Do you think the US side would agree to that?
Joseph Tulchin: I think the US side is open to discussion. You have to take into account the fact that claims for damages is a two-way street. There are pending in the US and European courts claims against the Cubans for the expropriation of properties in the early 1960s and through the decade.
The Cubans will be very careful about that, because by making such claims they will open themselves to the demands made by the Cuban residents now outside Cuba for compensation for their properties, which value somewhere between $4-5 billion according to studies by the Peterson Institute. I think that will not be among the first steps. The first steps will be tourism, on the one hand, and opening of economic activity.
There are other things that need to be resolved: the ending of transmission of anti-Castro radio broadcast, the US support for Cuban dissidents and Cuba’s removal from the US list of states sponsors of terrorism. Are we likely to see this demand fulfilled any time soon?
Solomon Comissiong: I'm not so optimistic. Personally, I’d like to see those demands fulfilled, but based on the US’s track record, I don’t see it happening any time soon, unless there is a continued groundswell and more and more of the US populists being comprehensively educated on domestic and foreign interests’ issues of this nature. The average American has no idea of who was the Cuban leader before Castro. They have no idea who Fulgencio Batista was and what kind of dictator he was. He was the dictator that the US enjoyed. He killed many innocent Cubans, folks who spoke out against, he had a very cozy relationship with Washington.
So, if there is the opening of tourism and so forth, I really hope that it is something that is not in the purest economic interests of the US tourist industry and finance capital, and Wall Street, as we see in places like, for instance, Haiti and even Jamaica. Many people don’t know that the average Jamaican cannot go to many of the beaches where all of the US resorts are setup.
When the US puts somebody on the list of states sponsors of terrorism, it is not always what it seems. We have to remember, Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress were on the US terrorists watch list. And the US also for a long time was on the side of the white minority apartheid regime in South Africa, along with Castro and the Cubans sending in over 300 000 troops into different places in Southern Africa to upend white supremacy and colonization in places like Mozambique, Namibia, Angola and so forth.
What about the political changes, can we expect any?
Joseph Tulchin: Fidel is no longer active, Raul is ageing. Nature will take its course and a new generation in Cuba will come to power within the next 5-6 years. I think we are going to see significant changes there not because of the US policy or anybody’s policy, but simply because the gerontocracy that has been running the country for the last 50 years will, sadly or not, die off. And then, globalization, as we’ve experienced throughout the world, creates enormous difficulties for closed politics.
What about the role of Cuba in the contemporary geopolitics of Latin America?
Solomon Comissiong: We saw a growing number of Latin American and Caribbean states that said – we want the Cubans to participate in these regional meeting. I think that speaks volumes. A lot of countries throughout the globe have a certain amount of deference and respect, and adoration for the Cubans because of, for instance, — the thing that is hardly ever spoken about – their medical brigades.
Joseph Tulchin: Cuba represents the only sustained successful resistance to the US hegemony in Latin America and as such is symbolically revered, honoured and whatever term you wish to use, and will continue to be so. In addition, they will be as mentors to countries in Latin America about how to exercise influence in the international system. And that is not necessarily hostility to the US, it means how the decisions are made in the UN, how Latin America has the relations with the EU and so on. The Cubans have done this and have been successful in defending their national interests.
The problem in their role as mentor is that many of the countries in Latin America only know one foreign policy – anti-US policy. It is important for them to realize that defending their national interests is much more than just opposition to the US. They can continue their opposition, but they will have to come up with policies that defend their own national interests. And that is going to be a challenge for many of the countries.
So, I see Cuba playing a positive role in the hemisphere. I see Cuba playing a role particularly as a symbolic leader of the Latin American effort to create regional autonomy, and to misdirect or cause to decline any hegemonic influence of the US. But is it not going to happen overnight, it will take years and, maybe, even decades