After Thaw in U.S. Relations, Cubans Pursue Slow but Steady Pace of Change

Posted March 30, 2016

MP3 Interview with Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst with the National Security Archive, conducted by Scott Harris

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President Barack Obama’s March 20 trip to Cuba was a bold affirmation of his administration’s historic decision to move towards normalizing relations with the island nation’s communist government. Obama’s journey to Cuba, accompanied by his wife and two children, was the first by an American president in 88 years. The initiative for warmer relations between Havana and Washington, begun in December 2014, ended a 54-year period of hostility, which was an important chapter in the Cold War era.

The contemporary history of U.S.-Cuban relations includes one of the most dangerous confrontations between the U.S. and Soviet Union, where an American naval blockade of the island in October 1962 over Russia’s deployment of ballistic missiles to Cuba nearly resulted in a full-scale nuclear war. The Cuban missile crisis was provoked by President Kennedy’s earlier support for an exile army’s invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 – and the CIA’s multiple attempts to assassinate Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

While Obama was warmly welcomed by Cuban President Raul Castro, his older brother, former president and revolutionary hero Fidel wrote a column urging Cubans to remember America’s history of aggression. For his part, President Obama looked to a future of economic cooperation between the former enemies, with the hope that Congress would eventually lift the 54-year U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Peter Kornbluh, senior analyst and director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, who discusses President Obama's historic trip to Cuba and the obstacles for normalization that lie ahead.

PETER KORNBLUH: You know that the whole issue of tourism and U.S. corporate investment of course reminds older Cubans in particular of the 1950s when Cuba was the playground of the rich and famous, run by the Mafia and by U.S. corporations. And so, Cuba has been really going slow to sign big contracts with big companies. And the Starwood contract is the first so far with a corporation of sorts, and really, that is for a hotel management investment and relationship, rather than an ownership relationship. So, this is a sensitive issue for the government in Cuba. It's taking its time. Nobody wants to see a return to, you know, the 1950s and 40s. So it's a slow, but sure process. Raul Castro has said the economy's going to change "sin prisa pero sin pausa" which means it's going to change "without rush, but without pause." Unfortunately, a lot of Cubans there would like to see a change rather quickly. So, this is the tension in Cuba right now.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Peter, is there some concern among Cubans that with all this change that universal health care and universal education in Cuba could be jeopardized?

PETER KORNBLUH: For one thing, Cubans who had benefitted from that understand that there are a lot of problems with that system still. The universities don't have the resources that they need even though people have access to the universities. Even though Cuba does have a universal health care system, a lot of doctors are sent off to other countries; there aren't enough bandages, medicines for everybody. So even in the kind of tremendous gains of the revolution, in the real pillars of what the revolution stood for, there have been great kinds of losses as the Cubans struggled with its economy. It doesn't really have benefactor like it had in the Soviet Union, or like Venezuela had for a number of years, so now the economy had to stand on its own. And Raul Castro wants to see what he calls sustainable socialism which Cuba can pay for, to health care and advanced education. Part of the problem is that Cubans are extremely highly educated with this system, but there are no real jobs for them. No real opportunities. And what do they do? They take their education, creativity and they leave.

And so, Cuba wants to change that situation and wants to control its own future, but to do so means opening its economy and modernizing its economy.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Peter, I wanted to ask you briefly about dissidents in Cuba, I believe, The Ladies in White who generally protest on Sundays in Havana, were detained briefly. What's the future of USAID financial assistance to dissidents in Cuba whom the Cuban government dismisses as foreign agents of one kind or another.

PETER KORNBLUH: Look any direct U.S. assistance to anybody in Cuba is the kiss of death for Cubans. That money really does not go directly to The Ladies in White, and I think that the Obama people are trying to change these USAID "democracy promotion" programs into something that is acceptable to the Cubans. I am sure that is part of the various negotiations that are ongoing now between Cuba and the United States, and resulted from the restoration of diplomatic relations and the establishment of task forces to address key issues between the two countries, including human rights and including dissident issues.

There's no doubt that the human rights issue became the issue of contention on this trip between the United States and Cuba. Secretary of State John Kerry, as I wrote in the Nation magazine, was due to go down on an advance trip to iron out a meeting that Obama would have with leaders of civil society and dissident groups. That trip was suddenly canceled when the Cubans made it clear that they were offended by the idea of discussing it further. Obama did meet with more than a dozen of those leaders and it was very encouraging to them, without certainly saying that he was going to give them any direct aid of any kind, because he knows as well as anybody that that's not useful for them. The Cubans' decision to arrest The Ladies in White literally five hours before Obama arrived – for doing nothing but actually walking to a given point as a group – certainly showed that they didn't want to have the message be that they were suddenly going to go soft because the president of the United States is coming and give an opening to dissident groups. So they maintained their hardline position.

You know, it's going to be up to the Cubans and they certainly know that. I think the gulf may well be between the leadership and the people themselves. So, we'll see what happens. I think Cuba and United States' interests are served, both government interests and both societies at large, by this process of normalization. So I'm hoping that it continues to move forward through the end of the Obama administration and into what will likely be a Hillary Clinton administration if Bernie Sanders doesn't come through.

For more information on the Cuba Documentation Project, see Cuba Documentation Project and National Security Archive.

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