Ernesto Dominquez Lopez, professor and researcher at the Center for Hemispheric and United States Studies at the University of Havana, gave a Levitt Center talk on U.S.-Cuban relations on Oct. 27.
Lopez described the history of U.S.-Cuban relations. Our two nations have a 200-300-year-old relationship that can be traced back to colonial times. While there are deep connections and influences, there are also complex conflicts between the governments and people directly. As Lopez explained, while the U.S. calls Cuba a “communist state,” the Cubans can be a “socialist-system,” as they view the society as fundamentally different.
In describing the relationship, Lopez addressed the permanent conditions which make the relationship so important. Cuba has had: intense relation with global powers; open economy; migration; and an important geographical location. Lopez noted, it’s “easy to understand why Cuba has been so vital,” especially in how it’s been seen by foreign powers, especially the U.S. In fact, in the U.S., there has been a clear idea, traced back to the founding fathers, that Cuba should be semi-manipulated by the U.S. The dimensions of our current relationship are based upon dynamics of international system, domestic development (in both), and a bilateral agenda.
December 17th, 2014, marked a fundamental shift in this relationship, Lopez noted, describing it as “Quitting conflict and engaging in better relations.” That day marked a yearly Havana event in which 150 people were brought together to discuss U.S.-Cuban relations. According to Lopez, the consensus until that morning was that the relationship could change president-to-president but not under Obama because the cost was too high. To their surprise, on that day, U.S-Cuban relations were effectively announced to be normalized. As Lopez said, the “afternoon session didn’t happen,” and we “had to start from scratch.” This U.S.-Cuban deal came from years of secret negotiations, and “unless you were part of the process, you wouldn’t know.”
Where are we now? While there has been an extraordinary shift in policy, this is not quite a normalization, as there has not been a true end to the “blockade”/embargo yet. This ‘better relationship’ is indicative of a major adjustment in U.S. policy and a significant change in hemispheric relations. While this opens a wide range of possibilities, it also introduces a new set of challenges. Cuba must continue its economic reform, reorganizing enterprise, establishing alternative energy, opening itself to non-state property and foreign investment, as well as actively participating in regional development. Cuba must actively “reinterpret society” to establish legitimate migration, bond with the diaspora, discuss “hidden issues” (race/poverty/inequality/gender/sexual orientation), open spaces for private initiative, and allow for dissent to become part of social framework. The Cuban government continues to reform, announcing term limits, gradual increase in local autonomy, and more. The U.S. wants to support Cuba’s private sector – making it non-dependent on state in order to act as a counterbalance to the government.
Professor Tony Wayne, former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, concluded by addressing the main issues from an American point of view. He argued that President Obama allowed for normalization because he “concluded that previous policy didn’t work,” and that Cuba “is really not a big threat to the U.S.” There is, however, a severe generational discord in American Cubans, as the older generation refuses to forgive much the Cuban regime. As a result, the negotiations were secret, although Obama shaking hand of Raul Castro at Mandela’s funeral changed the tone of discussions. This tone, we hope, can be the beginning of a better and more fruitful relationship.