As we have seen, Trump describes Cuba in a manner that has no relation to Cuban reality (“Trump’s distortions of Cuban reality” 6/28/2017). However, Trump’s distorted formulation is fully consistent with the prevailing view of U.S. popular consciousness. For the most part, the people of the United States believe that Cuba is not a democratic society, that it at least to some degree violates human rights, and that it does not have elections.
Trump has formulated a foreign policy guide of “principled realism.” He maintains that U.S. policy realistically and with common sense ought to promote and defend U.S. interests in the world, but in a form that is rooted in our values and principles. His new Cuba policy is a perfect example: he condemns the (supposed) human rights violations of Cuba, in accordance with our democratic values; but realistically recognizing U.S. commercial interests in Cuba, his policy permits the regulated expansion of commerce with Cuba, building upon the opening initiated by Obama.
His concession to realism and U.S. economic interests is aided by a clever rhetorical maneuver. He (falsely) presents the Cuban “regime” as dominated by the military forces and security and intelligence services. This portrayal enables him to take a hard line against the military, security and intelligence sectors, prohibiting any commerce that would involve these sectors; yet to permit commerce that is seen as benefitting the people and their free enterprise activities. Formulating a policy on this basis permits significant commerce with Cuba, with both the small-scale private sector and the many state-owned enterprises that are not connected to the military. Accordingly, the Trump memorandum of June 16 suggests the expansion of possibilities for sale of U.S. agricultural and medical products as well as the maintenance and expansion of bilateral agreements with respect to science, the environment, and air travel, and cooperation in telecommunications and Internet; with the stipulation that the agreements do not include the participation of Cuban enterprises connected to the military and security services.
If Congress were to pass a law permitting commerce in certain sectors, such as agricultural exports to Cuba, but specifying that the transactions cannot involve the participation of Cuban enterprises connected to the military, this would be the legal basis for the expansion of commerce with Cuba in a form consistent with Trump’s policy. Trump could sign the law with great fanfare, noting that it benefits U.S. farmers without benefitting the Cuban military, which supposedly is the core of the Cuban “regime.”
Thus, Trump is defending and promoting democracy in Cuba, insisting that Cuba change, but establishing definitions and regulations that in fact permit growing commerce with Cuba, thus satisfying the demands of U.S. companies that want to do business in Cuba. Rejecting the tolerant discourse of Obama with respect to a supposed military dictatorship that denies human rights, the Trump policy nevertheless anticipates expansion of commerce with Cuba, in accordance with the interests of U.S. producers and exporters; and it allows for controlled tourism.
The Trump democratic rhetoric has resonance among a certain sector of the people. Many of our people feel of sense of loss, in that that the nation is not what it once was. Trump responds by proclaiming, “Let us make America great again.” And one of the dimensions of our former greatness was our moral position as the leader of the “Free World,” with the economic, political and military capacity to defend democracy in the world.
Even though the image of American greatness is based on false premises and historical omissions, it is effective political discourse. The leaders and the great majority of the people believed it during the historic moment of American power and glory, and many believe it now, albeit less so. In the context of the prevailing popular consciousness, drawing upon the image of America defending democracy connects our people to the discourse of our foreparents, who invoked the rhetoric to explain, justify and promote American expansionism and imperialism.
In the context of U.S. political discourse, it does not matter much that the U.S. blockade of Cuba has been condemned repeatedly and universally. In the United States, international public opinion scarcely is taken into account. Indeed, there is a certain sector among the people that maintains that world opinion should not matter to us. We know what is right, and we have the military strength to ensure that our will prevails. The people and governments of the world may protest, but they know much less about the meaning of democracy than we do. Let us act in the world with force and will, as we once did. Consistent with this conception, the Trump policy mandates rejection of the world condemnation of the U.S. embargo of Cuba as a component of the policy itself.
Trump also has formulated the concept of regional spheres of influence, where the major powers are responsible for order and stability in their respective regions. This implies a move toward disengagement from Europe and the Middle East, and a greater involvement in Latin America, which already is evident with respect to Cuba and Venezuela. In light of the disregard for international opinion and the increase in U.S. military expenditures, the Latin American engagement likely will utilize military interventions and economic sanctions, with these policies justified by claims of violations of human rights as well as connections to drug trafficking and trafficking in persons, with the mass media supporting distorted claims. With respect to Europe and Asia, if Trump were to take seriously his idea of spheres of influence, he would be focused in the long term on developing commercial relations that intelligently benefit U.S. interests, and less inclined to costly military interventions.
Trump stands as the voice of American pride and power, not only defending democracy in Cuba and Latin America, but also: promoting an economic nationalism that induces U.S. corporations to invest in production in the United States; supporting American production against the idealism of ecologists; increasing military strength; and protecting borders from an uncontrolled illegal immigration. He seeks support for this nationalist project with a populist rhetoric that includes the scapegoating of immigrants and Muslims (see “Reflections on Trump” 3/17/2017 in the category Trump). If the Trump project can maintain itself with the firm support of 25% or 30% of the people, it would have a viable and important presence in U.S. political dynamics. Given the absence of an alternative project that responds to popular anxieties, it could grow in influence.
To be sure, the Trump project confronts major political obstacles. There are important sectors of the people for whom such a message has little resonance: African-Americans, those oriented to “identity politics,” and the white middle class of the urban Northeast, Midwest and West Coast. Some popular sectors will remain strongly opposed, offended by Trump’s scapegoating, anti-ecology discourse, and disregard for humanity beyond U.S. borders. In addition, the project challenges the neoliberal global elite, which favors multicultural discourse and seeking profits anywhere in the world, without concern for the well-being of the nation or its people. This sector of the elite controls the major newspapers and media of communication, such that its opposition is significant in influencing the people.
The Trump project, however, has appeal in the smaller cities and towns in the South, Midwest and Rocky Mountain states. And in light of the increase in military expenditures, it should have the support of the arms industry and the military-industrial complex.
The battle is joined between the neo-nationalism and neofascism of Trump and the globalism, multiculturalism, and neoliberalism of Clinton-Bush-Obama. The people and the elite are in the midst of political-cultural-ideological war. Neither band has an understanding of the necessary direction in the context of the sustained national and global crises. The “Left” in the United States ought to propose an alternative national narrative and direction, which thus far it has failed to do. I will discuss the necessary response to Trump in the next post.