President Obama visits Cuba

Pin It

On 20 March 2016, US President Barack Obama arrived in Havana seeking to consolidate his legacy following the historic announcement of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba 15 months earlier. Cuba says it has conceded nothing in return for this rapprochement, but it does stand to gain significantly through the gradual dismantling of the US blockade. The US administration hopes to exploit this opportunity to drown Cuban socialism in a flood of capital and capitalist ideology. As Gerardo Hernandez of the Cuban Five warns: ‘They want to destroy us with their bear hug.’ The Cubans are no fools; they do not trust imperialism. James Bell and Helen Yaffe report.

Obama was the first US President to visit the island since Calvin Coolidge went in 1928 to offer his support for Cuban dictator General Gerardo Machado. A few months later, the Great Crash of 1929 brought US capitalism to its knees. The subsequent collapse in the Cuban sugar industry and resistance to Machado’s increasing repression led to Cuba’s democratic revolution of 1933. Why did Obama visit Cuba? Not to promote ‘human rights’, for which he has shown disdain throughout his mandate. It was to recoup lost economic opportunities for US capital, to assuage political pressure from Latin American states that reject failed US policies to isolate Cuba, and because he believes that ‘engagement’ offers a better strategy to undermine Cuban socialism than the isolation of the past half century (see FRFI 243).

In a Havana theatre on 22 March, Obama delivered a speech that was broadcast live on Cuban television. He focussed on forgetting the past or, as he put it, ‘bury[ing] the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas’. Every word was carefully placed to make it palatable, not only for the ‘people of Cuba’, but also for the corporate press, the US elites, the Cuban-American exile community, business interests and US citizens – all in the context of an unpredictable US presidential race. It may have been a delicate oration, but there are glaring omissions: no mention of the US occupied territory in Guantanamo Bay and, whilst declaring that ‘US has neither the capacity nor the intention to impose change on Cuba’, there was no mention of US funding of programmes to produce regime change in Cuba (over $35 million invested in 2016 alone). ‘It’s time to lift the embargo’ he declared. ‘But’, he warned ‘It should be easier to open a business here in Cuba. A worker should be able to get a job directly with companies who invest here in Cuba. Two currencies shouldn’t separate the type of salaries that Cubans can earn. The internet should be available across the island so that Cubans can connect to the wider world and to one of the greatest engines of growth in human history.’ No sense of irony here, given that the US blockade is precisely what has stopped Cuba introducing broadband, until Venezuela invested in an underwater cable to provide Jamaica and Cuba with a high speed connection. The US blockade has cost Cuba over $1.1 trillion since 1960. It has cost the world too – by denying it access to Cuban biotechnology achievements and other scientific and medical advances.

The same rank hypocrisy characterised mainstream media coverage which focused on the arrest of a handful of anti-government protestors from the ‘Ladies in White’ (see FRFI 215). This small group holds weekly demonstrations mostly without incident, despite having been exposed by Wikileaks (August 2015) and other sources, as accepting money directly from the US State Department and from Cuban exiles in Miami linked to terrorism. In the US, the same crime – accepting funding from a hostile country to destabilise the government – is punishable by anything between a minimum fine of $10,000 or a death sentence.

During a press conference given by Obama and Raul Castro on 21 March, CNN journalist Jim Acosta asked Raul ‘Why do you have Cuban political prisoners? Why don’t you release them?’ Raul responded with a challenge: ‘What political prisoners? Give me a name or names. Or once this meeting is over, you can give me a list of prisoners and if we have those political prisoners, they will be released before tonight.’ No list materialised because there are none; except of course those imprisoned by the US itself on illegally held territory at Guantanamo Bay. The notion that Cuba is an undemocratic, draconian dictatorship is fabricated. It is justification for the relentless onslaught on Cuban socialism by imperialist powers, led by the US. Obama should take heed of the words of Cuban hero of national independence, Jose Martí, whom he quoted: ‘Liberty is the right of every man to be honest, to think and to speak without hypocrisy.’

Just after his speech, Obama held a private meeting with Cuban ‘entrepreneurs’ and another with Cuban ‘dissidents’: including Guillermo Farinas, a violent criminal turned ‘political prisoner’ and veteran Elizardo Sanchez, who has been lucratively rewarded for his ‘dissidence’. Both of these mercenaries, who have been wined and dined by right-wing terrorists in Miami, were congratulated by Obama for their ‘courage’. Cuban authorities made no attempts to prevent Obama conducting such meetings, which reflects their confidence in popular support for the revolutionary government and the insignificance of these tiny groups of mercenaries to Cuba’s real civil society.

As well as his wife and children, Obama’s entourage included Secretary of State John Kerry, security agents, 37 members of Congress, government officials, ‘dozens’ of business representatives – a party of some 1,200. They were busy meeting with their Cuban counterparts while Obama strolled in Old Havana, laid flowers at Jose Marti’s statue in Revolution Square and watched a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays team and the Cuban national team.

Several US monopolies announced plans to invest in Cuba during Obama’s visit, including Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Incorporated (valued at $15bn) which will invest in Cuban hotels. US tourism to Cuba has dramatically increased in the last few years. Google (valued at $365bn) also announced plans to open an online technology centre in Havana, offering faster internet access. The financial incentive is again clear, but it is also part of the US’s political strategy, as practised in many countries around the world, for promoting regime change. It is no coincidence that the Obama administration has removed the obstacles to US investments in telecommunications sector first.

On 21 March, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) signed an agreement with the Cuban state that will ‘foster further cooperation between the US and Cuban agriculture sectors’. The development of Cuban agriculture is fundamental to the success of the Economic and Social Guidelines approved at the 6th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in 2011. The guidelines aim for food sovereignty. Presently, Cuba has to import 70 to 80% of its food requirements. To reduce this requires new machinery and technologies which will increase productivity and allow the expansion of land tilled. In biotechnology, cooperation has already begun between US and Cuban institutions to test a Cuban vaccine used to treat lung cancer (see FRFI 249). Further collaboration is planned in this area and in combating the Zika virus.

Economic development is essential to secure the future of Cuban socialism. This is what lies behind the new foreign investment law and the creation of Special Economic Development Zones in Cuba. This is not the same as surrendering sovereignty, but it does present a challenge: to channel US or European capital in a way that benefits Cuba’s productive infrastructure, without encouraging private accumulation, increasing inequality or environmental destruction, or losing the Revolution’s social gains and socialist consciousness. This will be difficult to navigate. The tactic of US imperialism is changing, but not its objective. Engagement is intended to distort Cuban socialism in order to destroy it. The PCC will no doubt explore the risks involved, while renewing its demand for the return of its territory in Guantanamo and the end of the US blockade, at the 7th Party Congress in April 2016.

Fidel speaks

What has been the reaction to Obama’s visit in Cuba? Whilst applauding the historic trip, most commentary has denounced US hypocrisy and reiterated the demand for the US to end the blockade and leave Guantanamo Bay. It has asserted Cuban sovereignty and commitment to socialism. There was no gushing. Fidel Castro captured that mood in his letter to ‘Brother Obama’, published in the PCC’s daily newspaper Granma on 28 March. Responding to Obama’s ‘most sweetened words’ about leaving the past behind, Fidel reflects: ‘I suppose all of us were at risk of a heart attack upon hearing these words from the President of the United States. After a ruthless blockade that has lasted almost 60 years, and what about those who have died in the mercenary attacks on Cuban ships and ports, an airliner full of passengers blown up in mid-air, mercenary invasions, multiple acts of violence and coercion?’ He advised: ‘Nobody should be under the illusion that the people of this dignified and selfless country will renounce the glory, the rights or the spiritual wealth they have gained with the development of education, science and culture. I also warn that we are capable of producing the food and material riches we need with the efforts and intelligence of our people. We do not need the empire to give us anything. Our efforts will be legal and peaceful, as this is our commitment to peace and fraternity among all human beings who live on this planet.’

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 250 April/May 2016