“Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.”
Barack Obama, speaking these words on December 17, 2014, initiated a three phase process. He traded three Cuban intelligence agents held in U.S. prisons for two U.S. agents held in Cuba, announced the beginning of diplomatic relations between the two countries along with a set of measures aimed at normalizing relations, including the relaxation of travel restrictions, and proclaimed a goal of ending the current U.S. blockade, calling it ineffective in achieving regime change in Cuba.
In March of 2015, a delegation from the NLG Labor and Employment Committee travelled to Cuba to evaluate the impact of these announcements. We found a country celebrating the return of their agents, cautiously optimistic about the prospects of diplomatic relations with the United States and steadily working on changes in Cuban society which have been underway for over a decade.
The spy trade generated international headlines. Ramon Labanino, Antonio Guerrero and Gerardo Hernandez were the last imprisoned members of the Cuban Five, Cuban agents who were jailed for over 15 years not for spying on the United Sates but for infiltrating terrorist groups in Florida which had launched deadly attacks on Cuba. They were traded for Alan Gross, an employee of U.S. AID sent to Cuba on increasingly dangerous missions until he was caught, and Rolando Sarroff Trujillo, a double agent who had assisted in the capture of the Cuban Five and was imprisoned by the Cuban government.
In his speech, Obama did not reveal Sarroff’s name, but referred to him as “one of the most important intelligence agents we have ever had in Cuba.”
Three spies were not included in the trade. Ana Belen Montes, who worked for the CIA, came to see U.S. policy toward Cuba as immoral and began passing information to Havana. She remains in solitary confinement in Carswell Federal Prison in Texas. Walter Kendall Myers was an employee of the U.S. State Department who, with his spouse Gwendolyn, took the same actions as Ana Belen Montes. Both remain in prison. All three deserve their freedom.
The promise of full diplomatic relations has not yet been fulfilled. Three rounds of talks have been held to date, but the naming of a U.S. ambassador to Cuba requires the approval of Congress, and the leaders of the Republican Party have vowed to block any appointment. Cuba remains designated by the United States as a State Sponsor of Terrorism, initially under Ronald Reagan in 1982 and now primarily because it has granted political asylum to Assata Shakur. The talks must also address whether the parties will follow the Vienna Convention regarding diplomatic relations. Will the U.S. embassy, for example, support and finance groups to impact Cuban internal politics?
It is in the area of “regime change through ending the embargo” that the most confusion exists. The blockade, in place since the 1960’s, became codified by Congressional legislation. The Torricelli Act of 1992 prohibited any foreign-based subsidiary of a U.S. company from doing business in Cuba. The Helms-Burton act of 1996, signed by Bill Clinton, among other restrictions provides that any non-U.S. company that deals economically with Cuba can be subjected to U.S. sanctions and its leadership barred from entering the United States.
While this blockade has been in effect, Cuba has certainly been damaged economically. Yet it has remained committed to socialism while introducing tourism to gain hard currency and allowing foreign capital to invest in Cuba under state monitored controls. These changes began in the 1990’s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the stated purpose of making socialism in Cuba sustainable. U.S. capital has seen money being made by foreign investors while it is locked out of the Cuban economy by the U.S. government.
The economic changes being put into effect, especially the new emphasis on cooperatives, collectives and self-employment, are meant to preserve the core social system. There remains a full commitment to free education, free public health care and protection for people who are unable to work, among other achievements of the revolution.
Raul Castro stated in December of 2010, criticizing Cuba’s former attempt to copy Stalinist policies, “We are fully aware of the mistakes we have committed and the necessary updating of our socialist economic model, adapted to Cuba’s conditions and not to the capitalist and neocolonial past. We do not intend to copy from anyone. That brought about enough problems for us because, in addition, we copied badly. We shall not ignore the experiences of others,” referring to Russia, China and eastern Europe, “and we shall learn from them.”
The NLG delegation took note of steps which have been taken to learn from the past. The homophobia which was rampant in the early years of the revolution has been bitterly fought by the Cuban Institute for Sexual Education, which has led high profile and successful efforts to recognize the rights and liberties of the LGBT community. Exit visas for Cubans have been eliminated, making travel easier. Cuba’s “human capital” increasingly earns hard currency overseas. Cuban baseball stars like Yulieski Gourriel, Alfredo Despaigne and Frederich Cepeda now play in Japan, where they are not required by Japan to renounce their Cuban citizenship, a rule still imposed only on Cubans by the United States and Major League Baseball.
The NLG delegation met with lawyers from around the world, and there was a critical examination of the new role of self-employment in the Cuban economy. While the goal is to avoid a new concentration of wealth, many speakers addressed the possibility that the ongoing reforms will create a new class of small employers whose class interests may turn against socialism. Workers designated as “self-employed” may hire other workers for wages, thus creating new legal issues in a non-state sector of Cuban production and distribution. This risk is seen as emerging within Cuba, not from foreign capital.
These changes have been developing for over twenty years. One response to self-employment in Cuba has been the slow introduction of a tax system. In the book Cuba: Socialist Economic Reform and Modernization by Evelio Vilarino, published in 1998 and for sale at the conference we attended in 2015, he argues:
“There is no doubt that the introduction of nonstate production forms with high relative incomes imposes the need to establish mechanisms for income redistribution in which a tax policy cannot be absent.”
This is a startling idea for those more familiar with the early years of the Revolution.
Issues now exist which were never anticipated. An increasingly prosperous Cuban diaspora sends remittances to relatives on the Island, leading to a racial disparity that mirrors the demographic of the exile community. And the dual currency system, introduced alongside tourism, has created income inequality by rewarding those who receive “tourist money” (convertible pesos) as tips or as cash payments rather than earning the national currency (moneda nacional). The dual currency system is set to be eliminated, but Cuba is moving very cautiously in implementing this decision.
We are witnessing an attempt to build a socialist model that is both sustainable and prosperous. As Marce Cameron writes in the Green Left Monthly of February, 2015, “’I want to see Cuba before everything changes’ is how many reacted to Barack Obama’s surprise 12/17/14 announcement. Seeing Cuba for oneself can only be encouraged, but those who fear that it will soon be transformed by American tourists, U.S. corporations and commercialism need not rush to book flights.” The idea that a change in U.S. policy alone will unleash corporate and cultural recolonization is based, ironically, on the idea that the blockade itself is holding back a flood of U.S. capital.
The cover story of Time magazine dated 4/6/15 is “Cuba: What will change when the Americans arrive.” Along with a predictable slant against Cuban socialism, the article ponders the appearance of Taco Bell and McDonalds and states, “It would take an act of Congress to bring in the American fast-food chains.”
In reality, it would require an act of the Cuban National Assembly. We asked Cuban officials if there was any chance casinos would reappear in Havana. The answer was a resounding “No.” The Revolution which tossed American corporations and Mafia casinos from the Island is not about to hand over its hard won sovereignty.