But Cuba hopes that the coextensive can be civilized, and accordingly, Josefina Vidal, head of the US affairs section of the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Relations, maintains that the relations between Cuba and the United States should be characterized by “civilized coexistence.” For Cuba, civilized co-existence involves mutually beneficial trade; and cooperation with respect to issues of mutual concern, such as immigration and the environment. And it involves full respect for sovereignty, so that neither nation tries to change the other. Concretely, for Cuba, respect for sovereignty requires that the United States: cease its economic, commercial and financial blockade; return the territory illegally occupied by the US naval base in Guantanamo; cease its subversive programs in Cuba; and end policies that give incentives to illegal Cuban emigration. The two nations have different histories, different political cultures, different models of economic development, and different projections with respect to political conflicts in the world-system. However, as neighboring nations with significant historic and familial ties, the two nations could treat each other in a civilized manner, each pursuing its political and economic objectives in a form that respects the sovereignty of the other. In proposing “civilized coexistence,” Cuba is providing a model for relations among nations that have profound differences in political-economic-cultural systems.
In his first public declaration in Cuba on March 21, US President Barack Obama proclaimed that the destiny of Cuba is not going to be decided by the United States; and that the future of Cuba will be determined by Cubans themselves, and no one else. In a similar vein, he declared in a March 22 address to Cuban civil society: “We will not impose our political or economic system on you. We recognize that every country, every people, must chart its own course and shape its own model.”
But contrary to these comments, the Obama administration is actively engaged in promoting political change in Cuba. Obama wants Cuba to develop political structures like those of representative democracy, leaving behind Cuban structures of popular democracy; and he wants less restrictions on business. To be sure, he wants Cubans to make these changes. But he believes that Cuban small business owners will be the leaders in this process of change in Cuba, and his policy therefore is to strengthen this class, so that it will become a political force for change in Cuba. And although he did not specifically say so, this emerging merchant class in Cuba increasingly will have economic connections to US merchants and capital, so that it will become a class that has an economic interest in changes that promote the interests of US capital, such as reducing restrictions on foreign investment.
Since the December 17, 2014 announcements of the intention to establish diplomatic relations and normalize relations, the Obama administration has been pursuing a strategy of selectively dismantling the US blockade in accordance with the US plan for strengthening the Cuban merchant class. The announced changes in the regulations have removed limitations on sending money to family in Cuba, and they have greatly expanded possibilities for US companies to support the development of the Internet in Cuba. These are changes that strengthen possibilities for the emerging Cuban merchant class, as Obama made clear in his commentaries in Cuba. Meanwhile, significant restrictions on US commerce with to the Cuban state sector remain in place. So the present structure of the blockade expands possibilities for the private sector of small entrepreneurs, but continues to block commerce that would be beneficial to Cuban state companies.
The Obama plan to support the Cuban merchant class, with the intention that it would promote political change in Cuba, became especially clear during the President’s comments at the March 21 Business Forum, sponsored by the Cuban Chamber of Commerce. Listening to Obama’s comments at this interchange with Cuban entrepreneurs, I came to more completely understand Obama’s intention to promote the expansion of the Cuban merchant class, with the intention that it would promote political change in Cuba. Cuban journalist Cristina Escobar came to a similar conclusion during her observation of the Business Forum. Immediately following the event, she informed the Cuban television audience that Obama is supporting the Cuban private sector while continuing to maintain restrictions on the public sector.
In addition, Obama commented during his visit that the administration has made most of the changes in the blockade that it can, and that from this point forward, the change or elimination of the blockade is in the hands of Congress. This implies that the Obama administration, at least for the time being, is leaving intact the existing regulations of the blockade, which block Cuban state enterprises and promote Cuban private entrepreneurship. Such a policy is contrary to “civilized coexistence,” for it seeks to promote change in Cuba.
Moreover, Obama stated that Cuba could speed action by the Congress to end the blockade through progress in US-Cuban differences with respect to democracy and human rights. This suggests that the blockade will be removed on the condition that Cuba make changes in its political-economic system, an approach to normalization that Cuba persistently has rejected.
The US policy does not respect the sovereignty of Cuba. It is supporting one sector and blocking the development of another, in support of its own particular interests; and it is applying economic pressure, with the intention of forcing Cuba to make economic changes consistent with its interests.
Cuban commentators maintain that Obama could do much more than he has to dismantle the blockage. Although only Congress can totally eliminate the blockade, Obama, in the implementation of the laws, could make changes that reduce the legal structure of the blockade to an empty shell. He could, for example, significantly reduce penalties, and enforce the regulations in a selective manner. There also are a number of specific forms of commerce that the president has the authority to permit. Such strategies would put pressure on the Congress to end the blockade, adding to the pressure coming from US companies that have already signed agreements with Cuban state companies.
Obama has called upon the Congress to end the blockade. But the administration is not applying pressure on the Congress. Rather, the Obama administration is pressuring the Cuban government to make changes in its political-economic system.
The United States could pursue its economic interests in a manner that Cuba would consider “civilized.” It could totally eliminate the blockade, and seek to disseminate its values and obtain support for its economic proposals through dialogue and the exchange of ideas. It could seek to persuade Cuban merchants, and offer scholarships to Cuban students, without applying economic sanctions that restrict the development of the state sector. But instead, the US is attempting to use economic coercion to change the Cuban political process. It is a form of interference in the affairs of other nations that some have called “soft power” or “intelligent power.” It is subtler than military intervention. But it nonetheless is an interventionist application of power in the pursuit of economic ends. It therefore is imperialist, and it is inconsistent with Cuban aspirations to exercise its sovereignty without sanctions. It falls short of Cuban hopes for “civilized coexistence.”
It is possible that the United States will soon end the blockade of Cuba without obtaining any of the changes in the Cuban political-economic system that it desires. There is significant international opposition to the blockade, and in addition, the Obama plan for Cuba has unleashed momentum for ending the blockade inside the United States. If this occurs, the United States would be compelled to pursue its imperialist objectives with respect to Cuba through other means. Meanwhile, the United States will continue to pursue imperialist objectives with respect to Latin America and the Third World, using war and military intervention when necessary, and soft or intelligent power when possible.
An alternative vision is possible: a policy of North-South cooperation, in which the United States provides technical support in accordance with the priorities established by the development projects of independent nations in the exercise of their sovereignty. A policy of North-South cooperation would be built on a foundation of an ethic of international solidarity and a political commitment to a just, democratic and sustainable world-system. Such a policy will be possible only when the dominant class is displaced from power by an alternative political party that is lifted up by the popular sectors to defend their interests.
Key words: Obama, Cuba, blockade, sanctions, normalization, human rights, democracy