Political changes in Cuba

The recent dismissals from the Cuban government of Vice President Carlos Lage and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque have caught observers by surprise. The two were perceived as influential members of the system, both at the governmental and political party levels, but more importantly, as protégés of former President Fidel Castro as they led changes in the arenas of economic policy and foreign policy. Yet a degree of confusion as to the reasons for their dismissal has arisen with Fidel Castro’s observation that the two were enticed by “the honey of power” into making particular misjudgements and initiatives in proposing government policies. Fidel Castro’s words, however euphemistic, puts the seal of approval on Raul Castro’s decisions, and makes it clear that there is no dispute at the top of the regime about Raul’s dismissal of some of his key right-hand men.

The dismissal of Lage and Perez Roque has taken place in the familiar classic and, it should be said, humiliating form associated with communist regimes, with the two senior individuals each admitting, by letter, that they had “committed mistakes” and “take full responsibility for them.”

Much speculation in interpreting these developments, revolves around the necessity for President Raul Castro to put his own stamp on the governmental machinery and the party’s political apparatus. It would appear that the dismissal of the two officials is a stage in a debate on the future direction of the government’s policies in a changing domestic political environment marked by Fidel Castro’s retirement, and the changing global environment which must affect Cuba as much as any other country in today’s world. Speculation focuses, most of all, on the pace of reorganising relations with the United States.

In terms of the domestic arena, Raul Castro’s actions have a certain familiarity, with the long-standing leader of Cuba’s Revolutionary Armed Forces replacing the dismissed personnel with associates from his own institution and associates with whom he has had a long association. For particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Cuba’s recognition that it would have to maintain a certain viability without the support of its main ally of nearly thirty years, the army has assumed increasing responsibility for the conduct of the economy. This was initially particularly visible in the management of the tourism sector which has come to play a dominant role in the country’s search for revenue and foreign exchange. In those years too, the army’s role has been enhanced through its participation in controlling the influence of the drug trade as it has affected Cuba, and particularly as the drug barons operating in the hemisphere sought to utilize the country, like many other Caribbean states, as a transit point in the movement of narcotics to the United States.

So the army under Raul Castro has played, vis-à-vis the civilian decision-making apparatus constituted of persons like Lage and Roque, an increasing role in both the economy and in the internal and international security of Cuba. And the question arising in terms of the future management of the country is whether that dominance will sustain itself as the first generation of military leaders led by Raul, fades away.

It is also appropriate to speculate, however, on the role that may have been played by the dismissed persons in discussions about the future direction of the country in the context of changing hemispheric and global relations. Pride of place among such changes in recent times must of course be given to increasing pressure in the United States itself, during the last years of the Bush administration, and then with the assumption of office by President Obama for changes in attitude and policy to be undertaken by the United States.  In the course of the Bush regime, Republican responses to this pressure had been diverse, with efforts being made by some not favourable to change, to hold to the old line. This view is perhaps summed up by the opinion of President Bush’s last Secretary of Commerce, Carlos Gutierrez, expressed in September 2007: “The [Cuban] regime needs to have a dialogue with the Cuban people before it has one with the United States.”  This reflects the perspective that there must be signs of an “acceptable” political evolution in Cuba as a prerequisite to discussion of an evolution in the relations between the United States and Cuba.

But the emerging differences of view within the Republican Party itself are indicated in a more recent statement made last month by the former Republican leader and now Minority leader of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Richard Lugar. He remarked that “restrictive US policies toward Cuba are ineffective, have failed to achieve their stated purpose of promoting democracy and should be reevaluated to take advantage of recent political changes in the island.”

This view has no doubt been reflecting  a growing view of American business, already articulated in the country’s agricultural sector, that, to put it crudely, there is money to be made in a Cuba seeking new ways of satisfying domestic demand and gaining economic viability in the new world economy. And it goes some way towards corresponding to the Cuban view, as espoused by Raul Castro in December of 2006 that “we are willing to resolve at the negotiating table the long-standing dispute between the United States and Cuba − provided they accept, as we have previously said, our condition as a country that will not tolerate any blemishes on its independence, and as long as said resolution is based on the principles of equality, reciprocity, non-interference and mutual respect.”

The Cuban government is aware in insisting on its country’s autonomy while recognizing that deeper relations with the global economy are now an imperative, that its control of the pace of domestic political change is also, for itself, another imperative. The leadership would, no doubt, like to see a situation in Cuba’s relations with the United States where this is at least implicitly recognized. Indeed this seems to be the position at which they arrived with the European Union, which a few years ago, ceased engaging in discussions on Cuba-EU relations on the grounds that there was an insufficient evolution of the Cuban position on human rights activists in the country. But they have seen, in recent times, a resumption of those discussions as Cuba has become a focus of other countries interested in trade and investment, particularly in a potential petroleum industry centered on the country’s maritime jurisdiction.

In a context of this nature, in relation to the United States, it has been suggested that there may have been those in Cuba who are interested in pursuing with greater determination openings with the metropolitan power, and that this may have been one of the factors involved in the dismissal of Lage and Perez Roque. We cannot easily know, for to outsiders, as Churchill remarked during the Second World War in respect of the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, political relations in such regimes are something of “a puzzle inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma”; though it is relevant to understand that those remarks were not made in the era of the internet and satellite communications. Churchill added to his remarks also, that “the key” to understanding “is Russian nationalism.” We should bear in mind that that observation also applies to Cuba, as it does to China.

What must be the case, however, is that the current rulers of Cuba will be well aware of the fate of the Soviet Union’s Gorbachev, who, in his anxiety to reorganize that country and, in the period of the Cold War, sought to do so in an environment of détente with the United States that could permit assistance in the reorganization from the US and other Western sources. Gorbachev succeeded only in falling on his own sword. They will have noted too, the different experience of China, while observing that, whatever the economic attractions of Cuba, they cannot match those of China to United States entrepreneurs. Still, the Chinese insistence on maintaining their own form of political regime is likely to be an important point of reference for them.

No doubt, in a global context, the Cuban leadership will also be aware that in the hemisphere itself, perceptions of the political environment in terms of US-Cuban relations, are evolving in its favour, and that this must be factored into their own determination of the nature and pace of Cuban economic reorganization.
For us in Caricom, it is probably best not to join American speculation on the ins and outs of Cuban politics, a lot of which is based on an assumption of capacity to influence its evolution. Our responsibility in that environment is to ensure, first, that we maintain a competent diplomatic representation with the country, the number of our missions providing an adequate base for comparative interpretation of what is occurring. And secondly we need, within the terms of our Cooperation Agreement with Cuba, reconfirmed by last December’s meeting of the Caricom and Cuban governments, to pursue the commitments within a framework, all the time with the close involvement of Latin American neighbouring countries sympathetic to a non-conflictual evolution of Cuba’s domestic and hemispheric relations. And the framework of last December’s meeting of Latin American and Caribbean countries, indicated in the Declaration of Salvador de Bahia, is a suitable vehicle for this.

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