By Leonardo Padura Fuentes (*)
HAVANA, Apr (IPS) It’s important to remember that before an end of the US embargo of Cuba became even remotely conceivable, certain major international developments had to take place: the profound political shift in Latin America, the moving election of the first black president of the United States (a man, moreover, committed to change in its widest sense), and the financial and economic cataclysm that has shaken the capitalist system to its roots.
Without these events, the embargo/blockade of Cuba, decreed 47 years ago, may have continued for who knows how long in its perennial form, condemned by many in international fora, denounced by the Cuban government, suffered through by the Cuban people, and kept in place by successive US administrations that believed it could force political change in Havana.
But the change that Washington was after never came, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to recognise, finally, the clear failure of the US policy towards Cuba. In his speech to the Fifth Americas Summit, Obama went even further and stated, “I think that we can move Cuban-American relations in a new direction”, and made it clear that he was not talking this way just to look good in a setting where the lack of representatives from Cuba and the problem of the embargo were recurring issues, to say the least.
Although thus far there have been more words than action, there is no doubt that a new wind is blowing. It is no accident that after Obama’s elimination of restrictions on travel to Cuba by Cubans living in the US and on remittances to family on the island, and the possible negotiation of contracts to improve communications from and to Cuba, President Raul Castro stated that his government has expressed “in public and in private” to the new administration in Washington his openness to “discuss anything, human rights, freedom of the press, political detainees” with the only condition: that talks be conducted “between equals, without the minimum shadow cast on our sovereignty.”
But President Obama, an enemy of empty rhetoric, could not escape the usual formulas, and noted that Cuba would have to take steps towards reconciliation and demonstrate its desire for change to bring about the greatest possible understanding between the countries. What he seems to have forgotten is that the embargo was an indispensable ally of the Cuban government that generated considerable political capital and international solidarity and was used deftly by Havana to justify domestic policy and be the scapegoat for many of the shortages that made life on the island more difficult. For these reasons, it is clear that the elimination of the embargo, even though it will ease various economic and social processes in Cuba (which are unpredictable and therefore risky for the status quo), is not an urgent matter for the Cuba government, which has demonstrated that it can survive without the support of the defunct socialism of the East, and even with the strengthened embargo of the Bush years.
Therefore, perhaps the most important element to bear in mind in surveying the landscape of exigencies is whether the changes that should be introduced in the Cuban economy and society will be a response to the new climate of understanding or whether they will be dictated by the realities of a country desperate for “structural and conceptual” changes.
It seems inevitable that certain changes will come, albeit slowly, delayed, and scaled back. The proverbial economic inefficiency of the island, which has been incapable of meeting the many needs of the country, even in areas like agriculture; the social erosion seen in the marginalisation of sectors of Cuban society and the tendency of many young people to emigrate; the inability of the machinery of production to resolve problems like the housing shortage (half a million houses are needed, while Havana fills with dangerous ruins); the noted disparity between the cost of living and state salaries, in addition to the financial trap of a monetary system with two currencies and two economies that don’t communicate with each other; or the need for Cubans to procure a permit to leave or return to the island, are some of the realities of the country that cry out for change because they are a burden on daily life of Cubans and threaten the future of the social system far more than the embargo.
For the last twenty years Cuba has been in a phase that in the early 1990s was dubbed “The Special Period in Times of Peace”, a name that suggested a reality far less severe than the profound and general crisis that it designated. Though in recent times many of the elements of this crisis were alleviated (the supply of medicines, and urban transport in Havana, for example) or overcome (blackouts that could last as long as 16 hours a day), it is important to remember that an entire generation of Cubans have grown up battered by the conditions of this period. In addition to the material lacks, there was also moral decay in many areas, as seen in phenomena like voluntary unemployment, the resurgence of prostitution, the proliferation of urban tribes of young people, the loss of various ethical values, corruption.
Cuba has to change, but not as a gesture intended for the other side of the Florida Straits but because of its own needs and shortcomings. And maybe the United States, viewing the world now from a more realistic perspective, will come to see that the elimination or scaling back of the embargo might be most likely way to bring about these and other changes in its neighbour in the Caribbean. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)
(*) Leonardo Padura Fuentes is a Cuban writer and journalist. His novels have been translated into a dozen languages and his most recent work, La neblina del ayer, won the Hammett Prize for the best crime novel written in Spanish for 2005.