BY DAVID JESSOP — In the last seven months there has been a lot of news about the reopening of full diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States. Generally, media interest has outpaced reality, demonstrating little understanding of the difficulty of what will happen next. The situation implies that two geographically proximate nations with completely disparate motivations will have to be cooperative neighbors, which will be no easy task. Additionally, the negotiation of diplomatic ties will serve as an important background to the major changes underway in Cuba’s socially-driven political and economic systems.
As a result of the lack of understanding of the true nature of this situation, in much of the world there is little perception that the final process of fully normalising relations, if it ever happens, will be hugely complex and politically challenging for both sides. Even less understood is the fact that the process to reopen diplomatic relations is vital to Cuba attempting to reorient its economy and society before its current leaders, those who led its revolution in the 1950s, hand the country over to the next generation.
Both countries are only now at the beginning of a new, long, and complex second stage of an uncertain process. If this stage is successful, it will only take the two countries a few steps closer to the possibility of full normalisation. From a Cuban perspective, this would require that the United States accept that Cuba will continue to develop its unique form of socialism without external interference. To this unlikely outcome, both countries are beginning a dialogue that requires setting aside a history of mistrust and focusing on issues that have both practical and political dimensions.
By mutual agreement, Cuba and the United States have established working groups on human rights; air services agreements; cooperation on security issues (including counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism); postal services; negotiations on the delimitation of geographical boundaries (in relation to possible undersea oil exploration involving Mexico, the United States, and Cuba); approaches to coordinated disaster response; cooperation on public health issues; law enforcement; addressing the issue of fugitives from justice; telecommunications and the internet; trade issues; and migration. There is also the looming and fraught issue of the United States’ registered claims for assets seized at the time of the Cuban Revolution, a matter that the White House has said that it wants to make a priority.
As President Castro noted recently in his closing remarks to a meeting of the Cuban National Assembly, resolving these issues will require the will to find solutions to problems that have accumulated for more than five decades. “As we have said, it’s a question of establishing a new type of relationship between the two states, different from those of all our common history”.
If starting the negotiating phase will be difficult, then the following stages may prove politically impossible. During the same assembly, President Castro opined:
It is inconceivable, while the blockade is maintained, that there be normal relations between Cuba and the United States. To normalise bilateral ties it will also be necessary that the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base is returned; illegal radio and television transmissions to Cuba ended; programmes aimed at promoting destabilisation and internal subversion eliminated; and the Cuban people compensated for the human and economic damages caused by the policies of the United States.
What is little understood is that Cuba’s primary focus remains on the far more fundamental and continuing process of reform, involving economic restructuring, the decentralisation of decision making, the creation of a new socialist development model, the need for increased productivity and foreign investment, individuals taking greater personal responsibility, and preparations for new thinking and generational change.
While the dialogue with the United States is important at both an official and casual level, the emphasis remains firmly on the many related issues addressed in well-publicised debates that have been taking place in recent weeks in the Cuban Council of Ministers, the Commissions of the National Assembly, and at the Tenth Congress of Young Communists. All of these debates are happening as the country is developing new, potentially far-reaching, electoral laws, working towards the socially difficult issue of unifying its two currencies, and planning to debut next year a paper on “the theoretical conceptualisation of Socialism in Cuba”, which may reveal an updated development model.
In this context, one debate that underscores the future of Cuba when a new generation constitutes the country’s leadership after President Castro steps down in 2018, concerns the role of the internet and social media. By extension the debate says much about the challenge Cuba faces in adapting a uniquely Cuban socialist model first developed over 50 years ago to meet the world where it is today, the embrace of economic globalisation and information technology, the changing aspirations of its young people, and the ways Cuba’s leadership believes the United States may seek to change Cuba’s political system in years to come. It also revolves around issues dealing with whether Cuba will be able to retain the principal characteristics of its unique socialist model far into the future, and how new generations learn about and understand their country’s identity, independence, and history.
The debate on the role of the internet and social media also speaks to the gulf of expectation that has been growing for years between highly educated young Cubans and a growing class of small entrepreneurs and more traditional conservative figures in the country’s leadership and the Cuban Communist Party.
In February, Cuba’s first Vice President, Miguel Díaz-Canel, who may be elected to succeed President Castro, spoke about the need for the country to develop internet access for all of its citizens within Cuba’s cultural and social objectives. His comments and the simmering debate before and after them suggested that the purpose of the internet, social media, electronic games, film, and television posed philosophical challenges for Cuba of an historic, cultural, and deep-seated nature. The suggestion was that for Cuba, beyond the practical problems of delivering connectivity, defining the purpose of the internet pinpoints existential tensions between its experience and social structure and a society in which many of its young and individuals want more materially.
It is easily apparent that the reopening of full diplomatic relations between these two formerly antagonistic countries has only just begun. Cuba is rightfully concerned about the impact this will have on its government and citizens, particularly the younger generations. As such, it only makes sense that the negotiations be careful and laborious in order to adequately address the complexities that arise. There is much work to do, on part of both the United States and Cuba, to ensure a mutually beneficial outcome.
Image Credit: Indi and Rani Soemardjan