The ‘Normalization’ of Relations Between Cuba and the US

This week, “normalization” of the bilateral relationship between Cuba and the United States kept moving forward, destined to leave the ghosts of the Cold War behind. It was announced on Dec. 17, 2014 that representatives of the two countries will meet for the fourth joint working session since the beginning of this new phase, overcoming huge disagreements.

Today it is clear that the collapse of the Venezuelan economy had a lot to do with the process of “rapprochement” between Cuba and the United States. During 2014, deliveries of crude oil to Cuba by Venezuela in exchange for grossly overvalued Cuban services fell dramatically, from the 50,000 barrels a day that Cuba received in 2012, to barely half that number in 2014. And it is possible that deliveries will continue to fall in 2015, until they soon disappear.

That is why Cuba decided to cut this “dependence.” It turns out that the Venezuelan crisis is deep, and beyond the rhetoric, its economy has been ruined by the interventionist prescriptions of the “Bolivarians.” Presumably, that is the reason for the strategic Cuban “flight” from Venezuela.

Getting back to the “normalization” mentioned above, this time the bilateral conversation is taking place in Washington, D.C.; the meetings alternate between the capitals of the two countries. The delegations will be headed by two experienced women: Josefina Vidal and Roberta Jacobson.

There is a hugely symbolic step on the agenda for the next meeting: nothing less than the re-opening of the countries’ respective embassies. This could possibly occur before the end of May.

The bilateral conversations now have a steady forward momentum, which is in itself a sign. In spite of that – as Raúl Castro himself pointed out in his face-to-face encounter with Barack Obama – it will be necessary to have a lot of patience.

The thaw between the two countries is clear enough, and the doors to the future certainly are no longer locked. Just the same, the next steps will come slowly, as could be predicted. It is necessary to overcome more than half a century of disagreements, and find adequate solutions to problems – of all types – that have accumulated.

Nevertheless, progress is starting to be seen. In the first place, the process of removing Cuba from the degrading U.S. list of countries that support terrorism is already under way, with all the consequences and repercussions. The U.S. president has already done his part, quickly, for sure: the 45-day period for Congressional action expires on May 29.*

In addition, driven by how close Cuba and the U.S. are geographically (the distance between them is barely 90 miles), the necessary licenses have already been granted to four companies to offer regular ferry service between the two countries, which could be in operation at the beginning of the last quarter of this year. On a parallel track, the airline JetBlue is getting ready to start regular flights between New York City and Havana, starting July 3, according to public statements. Similarly, there are already frequent charters traveling to Cuba from New York City or New Orleans.

If the proof is in the pudding, it seems obvious that things are under way; slowly, perhaps, but under way, with an array of unresolved issues.

One of the clearest choices Cuba can make – right away – to improve the discouraging state of its economy and generate foreign exchange is to promote tourism. Some 3 million tourists, from all parts of the world, visit the island each year. Curiously, a third of these tourists are Canadians. On the other hand, scarcely 3 percent are from the United States. We’re talking about 90,000 people per year, a very small number. But it has already been noted that U.S. tourists are starting to visit Cuba “before everything changes.”

Certainly there is a possibility of rapid growth, with the dynamic effects that that entails. Tourism is the second largest source of foreign exchange for Cuba, after the export of medical services, which generates $7.6 billion each year. Tourism could very quickly be transformed into the biggest source of foreign exchange revenue.

This is probably why French President Francois Hollande announced on his recent visit to the island that two French hotel chains, Accor and Warwick, are going to launch new projects in Varadero and Jardín del Rey. I’m betting that there will soon be new golf courses in Cuba, which already has two, while the Dominican Republic has more than 30.

Another of the questions to be addressed immediately is that of communications, especially with respect to the Internet. Today, barely 26 percent of Cubans have access to the Internet. But the situation is even worse than that, considering that strictly speaking, only 3 percent of them have international access. For growth, this is what matters more.

The greatest obstacle to overcome certainly has to do with freedom. Cuba will surely want to maintain its power to censor Internet traffic. This is its “normal.” In Cuba, it is understood that you are listened to – or your messages are read – when you communicate with the outside world. In other countries, that is a presumption, frequently more real than some believe. But the discussion centers around maintaining – or not – everything that characterizes Cuban communism, where there certainly is no freedom of opinion, or of the press, or of information. Rather, there is a monotone unilateral discourse – monopolistic – constantly preached from a wide variety of positions within the state, which always takes on the disagreeable role of the exclusive owner of the truth.

In addition, there is another huge difficulty, resulting from the backwardness into which a disastrous economic model has sunk the Cuban people over the past half century. This puts the average wage for Cubans at barely $19 a month, while the cost of one hour of Internet time is something like a fifth of that monthly income, a typical special treat in a country where 70 percent of workers are government employees.

Some hope that there will be more progress soon, progress having to do with democracy and human rights, and with civil liberties and policies. These institutions are completely absent from Cuba, which is under a totalitarian regime: one-party rule. But these, it should be noted, will not happen in the short term.

The hope for these very serious issues points to the future, to the young, to a Cuba that, step by step, can emerge from the socioeconomic ruin it is in, and evolve toward freedom and democracy.

For the time being, it seems to me an illusion to think that Cuba will soon cease to be a hard-line dictatorship in our region. There are still some 60 political prisoners in Cuban jails. And even more, there is still harsh repression of dissidents. Irrefutable proof of this occurred this past May 3, when the “Ladies in White” (“Damas de Blanco”) were subjected to another repressive – and, as always, cowardly – beating, in addition to being detained in handcuffs for long hours, with resentful cruelty, as always, fed by hatred and the familiar grudges.

Meanwhile, Raúl Castro seems to want to come out of his shell. He met with Pope Francis in Rome before the pope visited the island. He hosted New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, surrounded by potential future investors, and then, right afterward, the president of France, in the first official visit to the island by a French president.

The signs of a slow opening-up are appearing. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t delude ourselves, and we shouldn’t get too enthusiastic about the possible short-term effects of the process that – piggybacked on the “normalization” of bilateral relations between the U.S. and Cuba – has just started in Cuba. It’s a long way from saying it to doing it. And it’s one thing to be hopeful, and another thing, quite different, to achieve well-being.

*Editor’s Note: On May 29, 2015, the Obama administration removed Cuba from a list of state sponsors of terrorism, and Secretary of State John Kerry rescinded Cuba’s designation at the end of the 45-day Congressional notification period.

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About Tom Walker 230 Articles
Before I started working as a translator, I had had a long career as a geologist and hydrologist, during the course of which I had the opportunity to work on projects in Mexico, Chile, and Peru. To facilitate my career transition, I completed the Certificate in Spanish-English Translation from the University of California at San Diego. Most of my translation work is in the areas of civil engineering & geology, and medicine & medical insurance. However, I also try to be aware of what’s going on in the world around me, so my translations of current affairs pieces for WA fit right in. I also play piano in a 17-piece jazz big band.

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