Frosty Spring

The U.S. raises its flag in Havana, but Cuba will not be Americanized so quickly. Obama, like Castro, needs to be cautious; Cuba is not as reliant on the U.S. as it was in the past.

Here we are again: the stilted diplomatic games between Cuba and the United States. Today, American Secretary of State John Kerry raises the flag in front of the freshly opened embassy on the ocean promenade in Havana, but the U.S. State Department is quick to say this event is taking place under special conditions. In other words, Cuban political dissidents are not invited. Kerry will meet with them briefly, but not with Cuban President Raul Castro and his brother, Fidel. “Not in the schedule,” is their apparent reason.

And so it has gone all along. Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced a diplomatic thaw in December 2014, after two years of secret diplomatic negotiations. Since then, representatives of both sides have constantly emphasized the frostiness of the diplomatic climate.

When the historically momentous opening of the Cuban Embassy in Washington took place, one speaker declared that from the American government’s standpoint, relations have been better. Raul Castro has gladly reminded Cubans that America’s decades-old economic embargo should be dismantled before one can begin to speak of a “normal relationship.” In turn, the U.S. is protesting that never before have so many dissidents and civil rights activists been detained as have been over the past few days.

One can take two things away from this situation. Obama, like Castro, has serious problems justifying their tender relationship to the people back home. With the opening of Cuba, Obama wants to open diplomatic doors in other and more important Latin American countries and maybe also leave a legacy for the history textbooks. But he cannot go too far if he is to appease conservative Cuba skeptics at home, including many elderly Cuban expatriates. Castro must also act extremely cautiously, as the U.S. was and is an exceptionally beloved enemy in Cuba. Whenever the internal political situation became too dicey, Cuba could rely on warnings against the war-happy imperialists in the north to maintain the party’s status quo.

The sudden closeness of the two neighbors is so difficult to explain that Castro, as a precaution, appears in his military uniform during all television addresses to the United States. The president is trying to walk a fine line. An economic opening, which for Castro means a loosening of trade regulations on the U.S. side, will allow for more rum and cigar exports to the United States and more imports of desperately needed technology, building materials, tourists and car parts. At the same time, however, the party’s power and the military are to be strengthened, and socialism will not be dismantled, but improved. Moreover, Cuban achievements, such as high education levels and a comparatively egalitarian income distribution are to remain secure. An exceptionally cautious, tightly managed and state-run liberalization of the economy is on the docket, inspired by China or Vietnam. This will be followed by power gestures, likely accompanied by a mass detainment of political opponents every few weeks.

Everyone is now speaking of a future invasion of American interests, including burger joints on every corner and brand new cars from Detroit instead of the 50s-era old-timers. However, it is unclear if and when this will occur. The regime sits astoundingly secure in the driver’s seat. Much is lacking for Cubans, and they would gladly have better incomes, but replacing the government overnight is a pipe dream. Quick regime changes, as attempted in post-Soviet Russia, have led to crony capitalism and oligarchies, and since then, many have been discredited in the West.

Above all, the Cuban regime needs Americans less now than they did ten or twenty years ago. Indeed, many would gladly have the U.S. in Cuba; its money and know-how would be greatly useful. But this is no longer demanded at any price. From all over the world, private and national investors are now courting Cuba for a place on the island. China has already been meeting with the Castros and major investment groups for some time. Brazil is currently financing and building a giant harbor near Havana. Venezuela has delivered oil to Cuba for years, receiving services, such as resident doctors and nurses, in return. Russia has offered to resurrect its old friendship and recently absolved a large part of Cuba’s debts.

A few weeks ago, even German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was invited to Havana. Raul Castro received him with an unexpectedly long conversation. In time, they seek better cooperation in technology, trade and cultural exchanges. This is a signal to the rest of the world: even 90 miles from the American coast, the world is no longer as dominated by the U.S. as it was before.

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