"In Difficult Times": The Tango of Normalization
In a well-known 1968 poem, Heberto Padilla describes a man who is asked to successively deliver parts and capabilities of his body. When he has given them all up, they urge him to walk straight into the future, "for in difficult times/this is undoubtedly the decisive test".
Although these then-controversial verses referred to the asymmetry between the state and the individual, their poetic allure allows us to reread them as a metaphor for the asymmetry of powers between the US and Cuba, and the difficult treatment between our two nations and countries.
Now that a window for understanding between the two sides appears to open again, as a result of the recent elections in the North, some place the question: what will the island government do to seize this new opportunity, on which the future of the country depends?
In English it is said "to dance the tango it takes two". Unlike rumba, in which dancers evolve on their own, when you dance as closely as in tango, there is no way to judge what one does without seeing (and understanding) what the other is doing. To really appreciate it you would have to give a little rewind to the tango of normalization.
Despite the rule of law and the balance between the three governing powers in the United States, most of what was agreed with Cuba during Obama's short summer did not have the stability of agreements between states, but only between governments. That trait, by the way, is nothing new. Almost none of the major agreements over 60 years have been endorsed by Congress to become treaties, because understandings, which leave it hands free, have sufficed for the Executive to change them if it suits him. These are the cases of the 1965, 1984 and 1995 migration agreements, the 1973 hijacking of aircraft, the 1977 fisheries and maritime boundaries, and so on.
Of the 22 bilateral instruments adopted during the Obama administration (the largest round of tango in more than half a century), almost all had only the category of memorandums of understanding (MOU): scheduled flights, passenger safety and commerce, cancer health cooperation, law enforcement and enforcement; as well as conservation and management of marine protected areas, hydrography and geodesy for maritime safety, exchange on agriculture and related areas, conservation of wildlife and protected areas, animal and plant health inspection, exchange of information and research on climate and meteorology, as well as joint response to hydrocarbon spillage in the Gulf and Florida Strait.1
Beyond the MOU category, it was agreements that restored diplomatic relations and the opening of permanent diplomatic missions—the first with the Obama administration—and cooperation between Zapata Swamp Park and the Everglades Park in animal life protection, which was the last. It also had this category of operational cooperation to deal with illicit trafficking in drugs and psychotropic substances.
The others consisted of "joint declarations" on immigration policy (continuing the agreement signed in 1995) and environmental protection; a pilot plan for direct mail; a joint programme for the teaching of English and an "arrangement" to admit security officers on board aircraft.
Only the treaty category reached the delimitation of the continental shelf in the eastern part of the Gulf of Mexico, beyond 200 miles, which reformulated the 1977 agreement. The legal existence of this instrument is rather virtual, as it has not been submitted to Congress for approval.
The list of understandings and agreements reflects the diplomatic level achieved by the ongoing normalizing process under the Obama administration. How to appreciate this tango from the "bottom" side? To put it in a fashionable language for these lares, tended to negotiate with the U.S. government involved Cuba investing in a joint venture whose counterpart submitted hardly any memorandums of intent, without providing any seed money or lines of credit or fresh capital, or signing any contracts. It led to the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a corporation called America Inc., which was to leave office in a very short time, a credit that included unusual access, going beyond the lack of reliability accumulated by that corporation in the Cuban, regional and global market.
To conclude the idea with the same jargon, although the CEO and other managers of America Inc. argued that they had to deal with their shareholders at an assembly called Congress, which greatly complicated their decisions, the Cuban Government-Party business counterpart also had to deal with a diversity of opinions, up and down, logically concerned about collateral risks and costs that did not have insurance to guarantee them.
In previous texts I drew attention to the asymmetrical nature of the process called standardization with the US. I listed unilateral actions from Cuba, which, despite emerging negative reactions from both sides, and occasional disagreements over tango steps, helped to prevail the will to continue dancing until the end. The greatest of these decisions involved discarding the choreography used by China and Vietnam, whose full diplomatic relations with the US previously went through commercial and financial normalization, security and cooperation. By putting the opening of embassies ahead of the lifting of the embargo, Cuba prioritized the start of dialogue and negotiation, despite the risks and costs noted above.
What I have said is intended to set the milestones of this recent story, apparently forgotten by some when they talk about "Cuba's lack of response." I do not intend to devalue the merits and achievements of the intense diplomacy deployed on both sides, but only to set points on certaintíes.
The last of these points is strategic. In a framework of radical asymmetry, such as that between Cuba and the US, a negotiating process that fits a quid pro quo (that is, bartering – mechanics is fatal. This mechanic is reflected in questions such as "what internal changes will Cuba make in reciprocity to the US, after 58 years, lifting the embargo?", or "what would Cubans give in exchange for returning control of those 117 square kilometers of its territory occupied by the US Navy at the entrance to Guantanamo Bay, since 1898?"
I know that for some, those questions are legitimate. And it is not that the issues of the embargo and the naval base do not deserve to be worked together, in conflict resolution scenarios that creatively imagine mutually agreed dispute-overcoming mechanisms. But a Cuban government that accepted them as part of the logical quid pro quo, with a communicative vessel inwards, would be exposed not only to opening a flank in its negotiating position, but above all to a loss of legitimacy, both among its followers and among many other citizens, on and off the island, for whom the defense of the national interest goes through sovereignty, first and foremost.
To recap the steps of our tango, I invite you to re-select the raffle of agreements noted above and answer some questions. To what extent do they reflect interests on both sides? Which of these instruments were unilateral concessions to the Cuban government on the part of the United States? In what specific areas were achieved: economic and commercial relations, ecology, transport, culture and education, diplomacy, security and defense? How many and which departments like Homeland Security, on the one hand, and MININT or MINFAR on the other? To what extent did cooperation between these bodies fulfill national interests on both sides, or barely benefit the bodies themselves?
As Philip Brenner of the nine main agreements or MOU has pointed out, eight remain valid*; three have been fully implemented; four partially or restrictedly and the only unvalidated is still respected by both parties. So almost all 23 (including the embassy opening) are alive. As in the Sleeping Beauty scene, in which the characters suddenly fall into a deep sleep, the nightmare of renewed hostility during Trump's reign failed to erase what was agreed, but rather put it into hibernation.
In addition to taking Trump out of the White House, these elections showed—anyone who had eyes to see beyond polls, political flip flops, and local struggles—the enormous gravitation of conservative populism, a substrate of Trumpism, into truly existing political culture. How this living and collecting substrate will affect the immediate future will be revealed in the republican opposition's ability to raise the cost and counteract the next government's initiatives.
Soon, many people of goodwill dream of the president-elect's ability to heal a divided society (by Trump...) and subtract a democracy lacerated by four years of deviation from the right path, among other well-meaning images. In addition to the success that rectifying negative errors and trends can achieve within that great nation, it is very likely that the new governing team will also prioritize the counter-reform of Trumpism in the large areas of problems of its global foreign policy: European Union, China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, climate change, free trade agreements, etc.
It is within that real political framework that it would then make sense to ask our question: to what extent will the emerging political context of the US elections really allow agreements to be awakened and the tango of relations with Cuba put into motion again?
The denial of Trumpism should logically lead to the rectification of its brutal decisions towards Cuba. In particular, those that directly affect Cubans on the island and in emigration. Although polls and the campaign itself showed a not-so-luminous side of that suddenly Trumpist emigration, some preliminary figures have revealed that his vote was ultimately not as Republican as he foreshadowed, let alone determining election results in Florida's most Cuban districts, which voted blue. Remittances, travel, sales of food and medicine and, above all, standardization of the consulate and the visa process in Havana would respond to those interests, on both sides.
The second moment in the logic of interrupted relations would be for the new administration to open the archives where the 22 agreements signed with Cuba were deceived, return to the point where they were in January 2017, and at least resume dialogue and diplomacy of meetings around what has already been agreed, even if it did not progress another millimeter.
Finally, I would be resizing the normalization process. No think tank or lobby can provide a more articulate, accurate and comprehensive strategic document for a Democratic administration than the US-Cuba Presidential Relations Directive, produced by the Obama administration in October 2016, and then agreed with all the state bureaucracy involved in any relationship with Cuba. Biden was part of the government team that generated the standardization policy in 2014 and produced that document. It would be logical for that directive to be retouched at some point, and to circulate on its external relations team, perhaps with a notice of Biden's handwriting in the margin, asking for updates and adjustments, between question marks.
But in politics, it's not enough to make sense. Neither Cuba has the relevance it had at the peculiar juncture of an outgoing administration in its final months; nor are we in the world of 2016 (but virtually in 2021) nor does this Democratic administration come to power as the previous one did, as is obvious from everything noted above.
On the other hand, in many journalistic commentary on the Cuba-USA tango, it seems as if the two were alone on the dance floor. What character will the triangles of both have with the European Union, China and Russia? To what extent can the US-Venezuela-Cuba triangle evolve? What factors, not only in Washington, but in Caracas and the international environment, can influence it? What will happen in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2021? In places like Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Brazil...? Those who repeat the old tango of monodependence as Cuban doom do not seem to understand the complexity of these networks of current relationships, and their geopolitical implications.
Four years of Trump, with high economic costs to Cuba, have not represented qualitatively new strategic challenges, as the government has more practice in dealing with U.S. hostility than normalization. In the waiting period, circumstances have imposed the urgency of the transformations of the established order, and accelerated their implementation. Perhaps when we look back, in a few years' time, we can discover that misfortunes like COVID-19 and Trump helped to bring that change to a close, and to do so in a totally disassociated manner from a negotiation with the United States.
In any case, for those who like parallels, the new administration will meet its first 100 days in coincidence with the VIII Congress of the PCC. In contrast to so much theatricalization of dominant network politics, and editorials by tirios and Trojans, an equal look at those hundred days would allow us to anticipate how the tango paints, and its new steps, in difficult and decisive times.
A Japanese friend told me that in her land people do not follow the elections and avatars of US politics so closely; they are more interested in the People's Republic of China and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, with which their own history is inserted, including, by the way, hot immigration influences. It is not that they and their government suffer from a colonial syndrome that puts their destiny in the hands of others, of a mentality dependent and obsessive with these neighbors, or anything personal, ideological or paranoid towards them, but of a geopolitical condition, which explains a knowledge before Marxism-Leninism.
The Japanese parallel illustrates a recurring edge in some visions of US-Cuba relations: ethnocentrism. According to this optics, Cubans do not look like anyone else, what happens to us is always exceptional, a tragedy of 60 years has set out the national being, rather glued, we are very different from other places where concord and understanding reign, and the worst of all in the face of the goodwill of the Americans, with whom we do not manage to understand ourselves because we do not really want to , unlike so many others that harmonize with them. Thus we go, always seeing the straw in our eye, like Caribbean Jews, transitioned by diaspora, exodus and other biblical glosses.
This ethnocentrism, by the way, is also reflected in ideas such as US presidents rising up thinking about the Cuban Revolution, that we are the thorn on the side of the empire, that Cuban politics only responds to ideological motivations and not to national interests, that our allies are those who share our highest principles and values, that the nation is confused with socialism Etc.
This ethnocentrism, from where you can hardly understand and explain politics, gives vampires an air: they are not seen in their own mirror. I mean, they only see the qualities they've chosen.
In an earlier text, I tried to characterize relations between Cuba and the United States during the terms of Office of Barack Obama and Raul Castro, map the tango they executed in just two years, show that the two sides yielded considerably, taking into account not only the barrier of embargo, but that of the legacy of mistrust, and the enormous asymmetry that separates them. I also mentioned some differences between the two, such as the risks and collateral costs assumed, without insurance to guarantee them.
Let me take a few more steps down this often hidden verdict. When the US government establishes agreements with Cuba, it can assume that it will deal with the same government for a time longer than four years. The stability factor has the advantage of allowing you to know the Cuban leadership well, learn how you think, predict your reactions, analyze your environment, calculate the limits of your power and the viability of your policies, projected on five-year plans. The Cuban side lacks that advantage. If Joe Biden now fills us with hope, we must not forget that, as soon as 2024 arrives, the 51 polling stations in charge can choose a Donald Trump perfectly (God forbid).
That situation pre-conditions relationships. Already, the president-elect's team has an eye to secure the second term, as well as to tie up a congressional election in just two years. As we know, since the 1960 struggle between Nixon and JFK, that electoral climate, with its high volatility, has been fatal for countries like Cuba—generally for Latin America and the Caribbean—no matter what we're doing or not, given the adverse effects of getting caught from study material for their electoral battle.
On the other hand, many weather parts about US-Cuba overlook that Joe Biden is going to be the first US president with a brand new Cuban counterpart. If Obama went through with chips, as they would say in dominoes, emphasizing that he was not born when the Cuban Revolution triumphed, it's worth remembering that Diaz-Canel didn't either. He had nothing to do with Playa Girón, the missile crisis or the guerrillas in Latin America, nor did he take letters in the alliances with the USSR or the Tricontinental. If Obama was 30 years younger than his interlocutor Raul Castro, Biden could be the first U.S. president to talk to a Cuban party's head of state and secretary 18 years younger than him and whose last name is not Castro.
Anyone would say that this circumstance is highly favorable for progress in relationships. However, the previous experience tells us that, with the US, the stars tilt, but they do not force. I will then write down some political processes already underway that can align these stars in the direction of renormalization sooner rather than later.
Two weeks ago, I mentioned the likelihood that the new U.S. government team would prioritize the counter-reformation of Trumpism. This would include the large areas of problems of its global foreign policy: the European Union, China, Russia, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, climate change, trade agreements, etc.
As we know, Cuba is not on the agenda of major problems. But that is precisely why it can serve as a less complicated and cautious demonstrative effect than turning relations with China and Iran and immigration politics. It was exactly that logic that prompted Obama to invest his last two cents of political capital on an issue as secondary as Cuba. Jeremy Bentham, the apostle of utilitarianism, would interpret it as achieving maximum profit at minimal cost, through an issue that, although small, has the applause of his allies and the rest of the world, as already known from experience.
Comparatively, sweeping the destruction of the Republican elephant into the glassware of our relations would not pose a major complication. Restoring remittances, travel, food and medicine sales and, above all, normalizing the consulate's work and the visa granting process in Havana can only have opposition among Miami's most bombastic Trumpists. I wonder if the experts who, from dissimilar balconies (EFE, Granma, El Toque...) seem to agree that Washington's policy towards Havana passes through Miami, would bet something on the real power of these rhyming to dictate it around the aforementioned topics.
The second requirement for change is the existence of an elaborate strategy to deal with Cuba. Some meteorologists question the reality of that vision, as if we were in a kind of zero-grade relationship. Describe yourself as a double-edged knife or Trojan horse, the same dog with another collar, or other novel metaphors... it's definitely not an enigma. The Presidential Directive on U.S.-Cuba relations, produced by the Obama administration in October 2016, and shared with joe joe joe biden, sang his triumphs loud and clear, as they say in auction, on one stick and another.
Can we have any idea where and who it's time to play that tune? We know that security issues are not decided in Senate Foreign Relations Committee or Florida legislature hearings, but in foreign policy governing bodies, historically decisive in relations with Cuba. If we give even a minimum of credit to bureaucratic policy models, to recommend the one that will be done towards Cuba, we should start by appreciating the communicating vessel with the Obama administration. The appointment of figures charged with leading national security and foreign policy from senior officials in the previous Democratic (and other more remote) governments include the National Security Council (Jake Sullivan), the State Department (Antony Blinken), Homeland Security (Alejandro Mayorkas), the intelligence community (Avril Haines) and the president's chief of office (Ron Klein).
All of them were already there between December 17, 2014 and January 20, 2017; and there is still a need to name a few more, from various hierarchies. For example, the ambassador to the UN (with rank in the NSC) and the president's special envoy for the climate (cabinet member) turn out to be an expert black career diplomat in Africa (Linda Thomas-Greenfield), and the former chancellor who opened the embassy in Havana (John Kerry). If the continuity of normalization had first and last names, this list would be eloquent.
On the other hand, finding a common thread for these designations could lead to dreams of reason. Let's say, someone might think that when Biden appoints a California lawyer born in Cuba to lead the agency in charge of counterterrorism, border control, transportation security, and immigration, which has negotiated and signed agreements with the MININT and MINFAR (those blacklisted Castroist agencies by Trump and company), he's giving a candle to Marco Rubio and Mario Díaz-Balart on politics toward Cuba.
Finally, let's go back to geopolitical reason and the global tango track. According to our previous history, the US-Cuba conflict has unfolded with elements and sands that exceed strictly bilateral space. If, instead of Miami's upside-down, a wide lens were used to look triangularly, how would their relations with the European Union, China and Russia intersect? To what extent could the US-Venezuela-Cuba triangle evolve? What will happen in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2021, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Nicaragua and Honduras? In Argentina and Mexico? To what extent will the region's magnetic field, for causes and chances outside the two countries, move in a configuration conducive to the Cuba-US relationship?
To comment on these questions, with adherence to the logic of tango and the dance floor, we would have to explain the structure of Cuban foreign policy and its factors, within the framework of its relations with the world, rather than simply reflecting the conflict-cooperation with the US. What alliances, interests, convergences, partnerships and uncoverings govern it? Where do your strengths and weaknesses lie? How have they moved during the Trump era? What signals announce that you are ready or not for renormalization with the US? How do these external relations interact with domestic policy?
Understanding this interaction requires looking without polarized lenses at the process of reforms and the matrix of transition. Calibrating the US as a domestic factor in the transition involves thinking about it in the context of other factors and dynamics, such as relations between the two societies, and in no way as a negotiating agenda between governments. Although it is said easy, to put it in the words of Jorge Luis Borges, decipher "that new tango (...) it is a riddle, without lacking the perplexed variants, common places and reasoned discord of the commentators."
Rafael Hernandez has been director of the Cuban cultural studies magazine Temas from 1995 to the present.
Published in On Cuba in the original Spanish and in the English translation.