Cuba’s Return to the Americas

Until 1960 or 1961, Cuba’s revolutionary nationalist ideology, from José Martí onwards, had thought of the country as being on the border between both Americas. The most radical voices of that tradition, very zealous about their country’s economic sovereignty and political self-determination, always pushed for the island’s independence, something which would put limits on U.S. interventionism without breaking diplomatic relations or leading to military confrontation. This last option — a bilateral break with Washington — was unprecedented at the time, and took effect in perpetuity with the Cold War and the alliance between Cuba’s revolutionary leaders and Moscow.

The start of diplomatic normalization between the U.S. and Cuba is in large part a return to that tradition, one which never understood the country’s Latin American and Caribbean identity as negating the necessary economic and diplomatic ties with its developed neighbor. When it was announced on Dec. 17 last year that relations were being reestablished, Raúl Castro seemed to argue in a speech given at the same time as that of Barack Obama at the White House, as well as in a later speech given to the National Assembly of People’s Power, that diplomatic normalization is possible, despite the ideological and political differences that separate both governments.

However, in more recent comments at the meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in Costa Rica, Castro changed his tone. He reverted to the language of the Cold War and put forward a series of conditions to make the “normalization of bilateral relations possible.” Normality, according to Havana, will only be achieved once the island is taken off the “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list, financial services of the Cuban Interests Section* are resumed in Washington, the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base is closed down and transmissions of Radio y Televisión Martí are stopped. To these four points, just as during the Cuban missile crisis, Castro added a fifth: There will be no re-establishing of relations until the U.S. compensates Cuba for the “damages caused by embargo.”

Following the speech in San José, the idea of normalizing relations lost momentum. U.S. congressional hearings and the postponement of several U.S. legislators’ trips to the island have made it appear that, though not suspended, the process is slowing. One way of interpreting Raúl Castro’s change in tone would be to understand it as a natural part of the exchange of statements between heads of state, making public the disagreements being negotiated behind closed doors by their respective delegations. Another and not necessarily contradictory interpretation is that Raúl Castro and his government decided to openly show the CELAC summit the obstacles to an agreement with Washington that persist in the Cuban political class. The fact that he did not do this in front of his own people is perhaps another sign of the popularity that re-establishing ties with the U.S. enjoys on the island.

CELAC was the chosen stage because the majority of Latin American and Caribbean governments maintains good relations with the U.S. and Canada and want Cuba to join the inter-American framework. Castro tried to explain to his equals in the region why there was skepticism within a section of his government. In reality, re-established relations between the U.S. and Cuba would bring about complete recognition of the end of Cold War logic ,and acceptance on Havana’s part of the rules of the global game following the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York in September 2001. Collaboration between both governments in the fight against drug trafficking and Cuba’s insistence on being taken off the list of terrorist countries are evidence of this acceptance.

What, exactly, the more orthodox sector of the island is resisting is aligning itself with some of the basic premises of the new and accepted hemispheric hegemony of the U.S., such as “the war on terror” and subscribing to a democratic form of government. A firm agreement between Washington and Havana in these areas is seen by those most resistant to change as an ideological collapse that would bring about the decline of a half-century-long foreign policy, one based on the messianic zeal of a U.S. rival in the Caribbean, determined to find alternatives to Washington all over the globe by joining the Soviet bloc, supporting urban and rural guerrilla armies in Latin America and backing national liberation movements and decolonizing socialist movements in Africa and Asia.

Cuba’s return to the Americas comes amid an evident shift towards pragmatism in the island’s foreign policy, starting with Hugo Chávez’s convalescence in 2012. In San José, Raúl Castro recognized CELAC’s role in this shift. What he could not admit was that the priority of the foreign policy headed or encouraged by his brother, as recently as this very year, was to hinder the inter-American gatherings via the “Bolivarian Axis.” In CELAC, just as in the Union of South American Nations — currently embroiled in an attempt to mediate between Washington and Caracas — the idea of maintaining good relations with the U.S. is paramount. Raúl Castro’s Cuba is coming around, slowly and with some backward steps, to this trend.

It will all become clear at the Summit of the Americas in Panama this April. The island’s official line, and its echoes — or retorts — in the international community are establishing a mechanism for continuity between CELAC’s strategy and Bolivarian sectarianism. However, the dominant position in the region in favor of preserving the inter-American summit and including Cuba therein implies reaffirming, and not abandoning, the premises of hemispheric integration. The dilemma faced by Raúl Castro’s government is accepting, or not, these premises, stopping them from being an “internal level affair,” as he reiterated in San José, and presenting them as something which concerns the whole community of American nations.

That Cuba might be the only state in the region not to accept a democratic form of government is not, of course, an “internal level affair.” Nor is the disappearance of 43 student teachers from Ayotzinapa, the death of Argentine state prosecutor Alberto Nisman, the unjustified imprisonment of pacifist opposition in Venezuela, the corruption and insecurity of any Latin American country or the racial and youth violence in the United States. The asymmetry between the two Americas and old nationalisms are preventing current integration from producing more effective ways of improving human rights on the continent, but democracy continues to be a value upon which people in the region are agreed.

Rafael Rojas is a historian.

*Editor’s note: The Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. is the de facto diplomatic mission of the Republic of Cuba to the United States.

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