Vidal’s speech, followed by thorough responses to six questions from students, is a perfect example of the high quality of public discourse that prevails in Cuba. It was clearly articulated and succinct, yet thorough. It was objective, identifying the positive and negative aspects of Obama’s policy toward Cuba since the two governments agreed to move toward the normalization of relations. It was imbued with a firm commitment to Cuba’s right to be a truly sovereign nation.
Vidal described the presidential directive emitted by President Obama on October 14 as a significant step toward the lifting of the blockade. She noted that it is only the second time that a US president has emitted a directive with respect to Cuba, the first being a secret document of President Jimmy Carter in 1997, which was declassified at Carter’s request in 2002. Vidal observed that the Obama directive is the first official document to recognize the independence, sovereignty and self-determination of Cuba and the legitimacy of the Cuban government. Moreover, the directive recognizes the benefits to both countries of a relation defined by civilized co-existence and cooperation in areas of mutual interest.
However, Vidal maintained, in spite of such positive characteristics, the directive contains interventionist elements. It makes clear that the objective of US policy is to advance US interests in Cuba by promoting political, economic and social changes in Cuba, especially through the development of the Cuban private sector. It announces the continuation of old instruments of US policy, such as illegal radio and television emissions against Cuba, and the subversive programs designed to “promote democracy” in Cuba. And it declares that the United States has no intention of returning to Cuban jurisdiction the territory occupied by the US Naval Base in Guantanamo.
The Obama administration recognizes that the blockade against Cuba has failed. But, Vidal asks, in what sense has it failed? She maintains that, from the perspective of the Obama administration, the blockade has failed to attain the changes in Cuba that would be consistent with US interests. Therefore, the United States is changing its policy, but not its strategic objective of promoting change in Cuba. For this reason, it utilizes some of its old methods, combining them with new methods in the context of the new bilateral reality being shaped by the process of normalization. And because the intention of changing Cuba remains, Obama does not utilize various executive capacities that he has to weaken the blockade; he has acted to change only those aspects of the blockade that are seen as the greatest obstacles to US interests.
Vidal maintains that the Obama directive reiterates the call to the Congress to lift the blockade, and it affirms that the United States does not intend to impose a political-economic model on Cuba; however, the directive “does not abandon . . . the habitual comportment of wanting to interfere in the internal affairs” of Cuba. Vidal took the occasion to reiterate “the will of the Cuban government to develop respectful and cooperative relations, but this has to be on the basis of full equality and reciprocity, absolute respect for the independence and sovereignty of Cuba, and without interference in any form.”
Vidal also analyzed the new package of measures that were announced by the US Office of Foreign Assets Control on October 14. She described the measures as positive, but very limited in scope. There continue to be significant restrictions on US investments in Cuba, the sale of US products in Cuba, and the sale of Cuban products in the United States. She maintains that the president has prerogatives to authorize transactions in these areas, but up to now, he has not exercised them. In her view, the measures adopted benefit more the interests of the United States than Cuba or the people of Cuba.
Vidal concluded: “The blockade persists. President Obama has just reiterated in the presidential directive that the blockade ought to be lifted, but the reality is that he has not exhausted all his executive prerogatives in order to contribute in a decisive manner to the dismantling of the blockade.”
In response to questions from the students, Vidal maintained that any future president could ignore or reverse the directive, but the document also could serve as a guide or point of reference for the continuation of the normalization of relations initiated by Obama. She also discussed the growing opposition to the blockade in the US Congress, and the difficulties in bringing legislative proposals to a vote in the Congress, as a result of the opposition to the lifting of the blockade by the leadership in the House of Representatives. She further noted that the growing opposition to the blockade in the Congress is not, for the most part, based on the damage that it does to Cuba, but on the damage that it does to US economic interests and US strategic interests with respect to Cuba.
In responding to student questions, Vidal also reviewed the various laws that have established and shaped the blockade: the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917; the Emergency Powers Act of 1973; the Torricelli Law of 1992; the Helms-Burton Law of 1996; and a law reforming sanctions in 2000. Because of these laws, there are a number of things that Obama cannot do through executive action: he cannot end the blockade; he cannot permit any transaction involving US properties that were nationalized by Cuba; he cannot authorize subsidiaries of US companies in third countries to engage in commerce in Cuba; and he cannot permit US citizens to travel to Cuba for touristic purposes. But the Helms-Burton law specifically states that the law does not eliminate the presidential prerogative to approve transactions by means of licenses. Presidents Clinton and Obama have exercised these prerogatives, on a limited scale, but at a level sufficient to demonstrate their legality. The President could use his prerogatives on a much larger scale to advance the process of normalization, including the authorization of US investments and sales of US products in various essential branches of the Cuban economy as well as the sale of Cuban products in the United States.
Josephine Vidal’s discourse at the University of Havana on October 17 was widely and fully covered by Cuban television and newspapers. Following the nightly news on Cuban national television on the evening of October 17, Vidal’s speech and subsequent interchange was broadcast in its entirely. The unscheduled broadcast played havoc with the evening television schedule, but there it was. The following morning, the country’s principle national newspaper, Granma, provided an excellent and thorough summary of the basic points of Vidal’s discourse (written by reporters Lissy Rodriguez Guerrero and Iramsy Peraza Forte), including a wonderful photo of Vidal seated on a wooden chair on a makeshift stage, surrounded by students. On October 20, Granma provided a twelve-page special supplement devoted to the day of protest against the blockade. Vidal’s speech and subsequent dialogue were printed in their entirety, taking up four of the twelve pages. Her discourse was given the title, “President Obama goes away, but the blockade remains,” which was a sentence that she uttered in her discourse. The Special Supplement also printed the Presidential Directive issued by Barack Obama (three and one-half pages), placing in boldface those parts of the directive that Granma considers interventionist or vestiges of the past policy. And the Special Supplement provided a list of eighteen things that Obama has the authority to do that would weaken the blockade and advance the process of normalization, but thus far he has not done so.
The excellent discourse of Josefina Vidal and the extensive news coverage of it are in no sense exceptional events. High-quality discourses by government officials and news coverage that provides the people with full access to the discourses are regularly occurring events.
No one could claim that the majority of people take in all in. Most did not listen to or read Josefina’s discourse in its entirely. But most listened or read in part, or listened to those who did, which enabled them to form a general understanding that the Obama administration is changing its method but not its objectives, and the that Cuban leadership is capable and is doing the best that it can to defend the nation in this complex situation. So that a people is continually being formed, with trust and confidence in their leadership, and with a general understanding of political complexities.
But there were some of the people who were taking it all in, listening to or reading it in its entirely, exemplified by the students who were asking questions. Such persons emerge as leaders in a variety of institutions, and they continually are attentive to educating themselves, capacitating them to lead the people. This is an integral part of a social process that involves the formation and self-education of the leadership and the people, in which educators, political leaders and journalists all play a central role. For more than fifty years in Cuba, a revolutionary leadership and a revolutionary people have been forming themselves, seeking to defend the people and the sovereignty of the nation, believing that a more just and democratic world is possible through defense of Cuban values and in solidarity with the peoples of the earth.
Whereas capitalism must ideologically manipulate the people in order to try to obscure the fact that government policies promote corporate interests, socialism depends upon the political and cultural formation of the people. I have seen both first hand, and I can give personal witness that the latter is far more beneficial to the society and the individual. And I believe that the high quality of Cuban leadership, standing in sharp contrast to the qualities of political leaders in the powerful and wealthy countries, will become increasingly evident to the peoples of the world as the profound structural crisis of the world-system deepens.