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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Normalization with Cuba: The Regime Runs Out of Options; Obama Runs Out of Elections

I was thrilled to hear the news today that President Obama has set the nation on a path toward normalization of diplomatic relations with Cuba.  I think that is clearly in the best interests of the United States in the long-term.  Since I visited Havana back in October,  one thing that stuck in my head was the statement of the #2 guy at the U.S. Interests section (the "don't call it an embassy" that is nevertheless the largest diplomatic delegation in Cuba) that "you won't find a more pro-American population on the face of this planet than the Cuban people."  That made huge sense to me.  I think the best way to create people deeply committed to traditional American values is to expose them to decades of socialist repression.   Watching CNN en espaƱol this afternoon, they were reporting widespread celebration and jubilation among the people in Havana.  Obviously many people have relatives in the US and this will facilitate family connections, but I would bet that even among those who don't see it through a family prism, they see this as a step toward a better economy and polity.

One of the news angles on this story is that the Pope somehow played a major role in this breakthrough. I discount that quite a bit. I think it is one of those cover stories that smart diplomats and spin masters come up with and they deserve credit for so doing.   I think playing up that angle, because of the Pope's relatively high popularity, is just "spin", an attempt by the White House to position the controversial step in a way that borrows some of the Pope's popularity and moral standing. 

But the truth is the State Department has been hoping for this probably the last 40 years.  And Obama has wanted to do this since taking office.  He just couldn't go too far until all the Florida elections of his term were behind him.  And the last one (Florida gubernatorial, where his supporter Charlie Crist was in a close race throughout) passed last month.  And as for Cuba, the collapse of their last economic lifeline,  Venezuela  --  which has been sending them $8-9 billion a year since Chavez took over, plus providing other support like hooking them up to the Internet etc  -- put the regime in a desperate situation where their only hope of avoiding economic collapse and a return to the starvation of the 90's was to reach out to their gigantic, wealthy neighbor 90 miles to the north.  In short, Obama ran out of elections and the Castros ran out of options.   Those are the "realpolitik" facts.  

I don't see this as a concession by Obama as the GOP and certain Democrats claim.  I think it is more a capitulation by the Cuban regime.  The first of many I hope, although the cynic in me suspects the likely scenario over the next decade will involve, like China, like Egypt and probably a few more nations, modest liberalization and gains in welfare for the average citizen, and large increases in wealth for the higher-ups in the regime, particularly the military, because that's how they get bought off not to launch a coup and take power themselves.  When I was down there in October, we drove past a hotel being constructed and were told the military's construction arm was building it, and I thought, "I've seen this movie before."

Speaking of making money, normalization makes so much sense for American business interests.  When we were there, we were told that the Chamber of Commerce of one of the midwestern states had sent hundreds of people there in several delegations this year. I think it was Iowa.  Right now, due to the embargo, it's hard to travel, the major airlines don't fly there; you can't get use your regular cellphone network, or your American credit card or travelers' checks.  The hotels we stayed in were managed by European companies.  The buses we rode on were Chinese.  There are dozens of dilapidated buildings falling down and crumbling with breathtaking ocean views. There is a lot of money to be made.  Ironically, the big loser when Havana comes fully online for tourists will be Puerto Rico -- I was in both San Juan and Havana this year and I would take Havana for a week of tourism in a heartbeat.

Republicans are expressing outrage which is what people in opposition do.  But I find the arguments impractical, emotion-driven or too blatantly political to get in the way of the nation's self-interest. 
  
Impractical:  The U.S. embargo -- which was initially an executive order but was hardened into statutory law during both the Clinton and Bush 43 administrations, and thus cannot be lifted unilaterally by Obama -- is at best a symbolic gesture of solidarity to the victims of Castro's takeover.  It is at worst an unintended prop for the Cuban government remaining in power, in that it provides them an external scapegoat for all the shortfalls of the Cuban economy.  In no meaningful way is it effective, if the test of effectiveness is its original  goal of bringing about regime change in Cuba through non-violent means (I am not sure what other goal it would be measured by).  The Castros have run the country for nearly 56 years now.  Whatever problems the embargo caused decades ago, workarounds of one sort or another have been developed and loopholes have arisen to the point that the embargo, however solemn its rationale, is in practice, something between an irritant and a joke.  Cuban officials and their state-controlled press call the embargo "genocidal" which is a tragically absurd abuse of the term, and laughable given the loopholes and workarounds that render it largely ineffective. I mean, I couldn't buy Coke or Pepsi in Havana but I could buy Red Bull.  I couldn't fly a scheduled US airline in there, but charter companies could sub-lease American or Jet Blue planes and fly them in. Seriously, it's just not doing much anymore except cutting US businesses out of opportunities for which they are logical partners, and giving the regime an excuse for its own economic failures.

Likewise there were some today saying, "Good luck getting an embassy funded."  Again, there has been a de facto embassy in Havana for decades and it has been funded without, AFAIK, any real rancor.  Changing the name of what you've funded does not strike me as a rational basis to depart from prior practice (although I recognize the political theater of the position and the unlikelihood anyone in the mainstream  media will do much to educate the American public on the facts).

Emotion-driven:  this should not be disrespected, but neither should it cloud the judgment as to what is in the nation's best interests.    Cuban-born residents of the US have gone through a lot of suffering.  My neighbor, in fact, was a child in a well-off family living on Fifth Avenue in the Miramar neighborhood in Havana, which was probably the most elite neighborhood there was,  when the revolution came.  The new government appropriated the ground floor of their residence, moved in a family they did not know, and confined his family to the second floor.  They lived that way for several years before they escaped in a small boat to Florida.  So there has been serious psychological suffering and certainly economic loss as well.  I believe these feelings will resolve once Fidel dies -- I think the expatriates will dance on his grave, and find closure that way.  However, it's unwise to wait for that.  The collapse of Cuba's options for avoiding rapprochement with the US has come sooner than Castro's death. and you have to take advantage of this opportunity to start the process, which is inevitable. And ironically the Cuban-Americans are the best positioned to profit from the new business opportunities normalization will create. 

Too blatantly political.   One great source of money for political campaigns and votes at election time, is outraged people  with lots of money.   So it's inevitable prospective Republican Presidential candidates like Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush are all going to be competing to capture the hearts and wallets of successful Cuban Americans offended by the President's action.  That's politics and both parties play it (see Wendy Davis's campaign).  But it's also short-term.  What normalization sets in motion is a machinery that will eventually produce material improvement in the lives of Cubans and I would hope that, in time, the Cuban-American community will start to focus on that. Trade and commerce are a better set of tools to bring about a change in the political climate in Cuba.

In the meantime, I encourage any reader to visit Havana before the tourist wave begins, because, while Havana's infrastructure was much better than I had been led to fear, I don't think it is up to the volumes of tourists that may descend on it once normalization occurs. Old Havana was, rightly in my estimation, designated a  World Heritage Site by UNESCO back in __ and in connection with that status, has been furiously renovating its many architectural marvels.  I had been expecting a widespread dilapidation, and there certainly are examples of that throughout the city, but where the buildings have been renovated, they are spectacular, the equal of Buenos Aires, and all but a few European cities.