Thursday, December 18, 2014

Cuba-U.S. Relations: Climbing Out of the Ruins

In the documentary film, "El arte nuevo de hacer ruinas," ("The New Art of Making Ruins") Cuban essayist and poet Antonio José Ponte says, “When a whole capital is in ruins, then there is a construct to the ruins. Then we talk about the art of making ruins; ruins are made, fabricated.” The German-made film chronicles the lives of six people residing in buildings on the verge of collapse or nearly in total ruins, fatalistically knowing that they may be buried in rubble at any moment. Each week in Havana, an average of three buildings implode or partially collapse. Such is the toll that five decades of failed socialism have taken on the majestic Cuban capital.

But the ruins in Havana are also emblematic of Cuba-U.S. relations over the past half century. Two neighbors blocked from each other by a vestigial Cold War iron curtain. That curtain is now coming down following the announcements by the two countries' presidents that diplomatic relations, severed in 1961, will be restored. While it may take some time to do away with the U.S. embargo due to congressional politics, a measure that will open up trade, travel and investment, the impact on Cuba will be two-fold: 1) its economy will surely benefit; and 2) the elimination of the embargo will expose the failed policies of the Castro government.

Ever since President Eisenhower imposed the embargo in 1960, the Castro brothers have been able to conveniently blame Cuba's economic ills on the Yankees. Certainly, what the Cubans call "el bloqueo" - the blockade - has harmed Cuba's trade and investment prospects. But it is the stifling policies of the regime that have turned Cuba into an economically stagnant nation, more adept at making urban ruins than providing jobs and growth, a lush tropical island that must import 80 percent of its food. Cuba is the only Latin American country with a negative population growth rate. Without "el bloqueo," the emperor has no clothes.

But Washington's stubborn adherence to a failed policy shows the United States' own shortcomings. As  a U.S. diplomat working on Cuba in the '90s, my colleagues and I knew U.S. policy for what it was: more anchored in domestic politics than on intrinsic foreign policy grounds. We knew it was futile to write memos to our superiors with new ideas for moving U.S.-Cuban relations forward. To be sure, President Carter tried. And there were other starts and stops. Something always got in the way, usually reckless acts on the part of Fidel Castro, who appeared never to have really wanted normal relations with Washington. But the Cuban-American community, whose hard core anti-Castroites held a lock on U.S. policy, has gradually been coming around. The younger generations are more open-minded to a new footing between the U.S. and Cuba. This goes also for indigenous Cubans. As I traveled the length and breadth of the island in my official functions, my reception (except by the secret police) was always warm and welcoming. I was constantly asked, "So, when will we have normal relations?" Young folks were fond of quoting the late pioneering Chinese leader, Deng Xiao Ping: "A country is like a house. If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” The more daring among them would pull me aside and say, "You want to get rid of Castro? Then open all the windows. The fresh air will destroy him."

Not sure about that, but opening up will most definitely have a positive long term impact on Cuban society, highly literate and well educated, with aspirations to better their and their children's lives like anyone else. Authoritarian regimes lose in the long run when their citizens are exposed to outside ideas through the free flow of information and commerce.

The days of making ruins, on the ground or in foreign policy, are coming to an end. It's been long overdue for both nations.