June 19, 2013
So close and yet so far
Why the United States’ policy toward Cuba differs from that toward Venezuela
By Cubargie Joe
(José Manuel Pallí)
LATINOS R. US
The island of Cuba lies 90 miles away from the US coast. Until 1960, the history of Cuba was inextricably intertwined with that of the United States. When I visited Miami in late 1961, after spending my first 18 months in far away Buenos Aires, the sights, the smells, the flavours and the overall standard of living made me — then nine years old — feel as if I was back in my birthplace of Havana (and this was long before the Cuban exile community carried out Miami’s extreme makeover).
That resemblance is long gone, after more than 50 years of almost total disconnection between Cuba and the United States, due to a stale and obsolete US policy aimed at isolating Cuba, and the ability of Cuba’s rulers to adjust to it. Such an ill-conceived policy has even allowed them to thrive in the image of a David daring to take on Goliath. According to Spain’s José María Aznar, Fidel Castro acknowledged to him back in 1998 that he needed that policy, namely the embargo, to remain in place for a couple more generations in order to further consolidate his Cuban Revolution. Castro masterfully used his anti–US rhetoric (and, when needed, more extreme measures like the shooting down of unarmed civilian planes) to make sure nothing changed.
Some 15 years ago, Latin America saw the rise of yet another cau-dillo that claimed for himself the anti–US mantle, in a country that was and still is a key strategic trade partner of the United States. His “it still smells of sulphur here” speech at the United Nations General Assembly, where he compared a US President to “the Devil himself”, stands out as the epitome of anti-US rhetoric. And yet the United States wisely abstained from replicating the isolationist policies it uses against Cuba to try to isolate Venezuela, despite the fact that during those 15 years some of the better known hooligans of US policy in Latin America — still lobbying in Washington today to assimilate both renegade countries — served as under-secretary of state for the region (a testament to the irrelevance of this particular office).
The fact that Venezuela is a key source of supply for the United States’ energy needs goes a long way to explain the difference in treatment, granted. But the absolute failure of what some naively call US policy toward Cuba (a policy that for 50 years has served to hide the absence of a policy) has also played a role. Keeping in touch, even with your “enemy,” has some value, as the recent expulsion of two US diplomats from Venezuela for presumably trying to influence internal politics shows.
The images from Caracas these last days, the streets overflowing with massive and deeply felt expressions of popular mourning, the funeral attended by so many delegations from all over the world, but mainly from almost every other country in our hemisphere, speak loudly to the wisdom in avoiding futile isolationist policies like those behind the Cuban embargo.
So what is behind the resilience of this utterly ineffective US-Cuba policy that has resulted in Cuba being far from isolated, presiding over the CELAC and attaining a position of prominence (even leadership for some) in the concert of Latin American nations? The answer is that US-Cuba policy has, for years now, been taken hostage by petty electoral interests (from both sides of the aisle), and is no longer driven by foreign policy or even human rights concerns. Vote counters in need of winning elections in Florida (or of reaping money from Cuban exiles) to advance their political aspirations, believe they need only to give a couple of “Viva Cuba Libre” cries in Miami and vouch to keep the failed policies in place to achieve their goals. And the foreign policy hooligans now turned lobbyists — most of them alumni of the Jesse Helms School of Latin American Studies — support this situation because they live off the preservation of the status quo in the US–Cuba relationship (or lack thereof); they depend on it just as “the clients of Chávez populism” they so despise depend on the continuation of Chavismo in Venezuela.
The extent to which these petty and poisonous interests have damaged US ability to reclaim its role as model, beacon or trendsetter for Latin America, is yet to be seen. But judging from what is going on in Venezuela today, US regional impotence is more likely to grow than is its influence.
Events like those happening now in Venezuela are clearly on the horizon for Cuba, where the disarray of the opposition and its prospective allies abroad is as apparent as it is in Venezuela. Still, the US maintains a relationship with Venezuela, and has a beachhead there; in Cuba it does not. But the advantages of proximity, of keeping in touch, are simply not enough; they must be complemented with new ideas that address the legitimate interests and concerns of all participants in the political processes in the region, at a time when the level of participation has increased exponentially by the inclusion of a majority of those previously excluded.
In Venezuela, the opposition to Chávez seems to lack the ability to offer a set of new ideas capable of winning over the throngs of people whose love and loyalty to Chávez overflows Caracas’ streets; they seem content to repeat (or rephrase, at best) the same Hayek-sian and Friedman-esque neo-liberal mantras and dogmas that Italian voters recently turned down.
In Cuba, it is to be hoped that the internal opposition can learn from all this. But to hope that the same can happen with those who stand by the futile US-Cuba policy is like hoping against hope… just listen to the so-called pro-democracy talking heads on your TV screen, whether based in Washington or Miami, and you’ll understand why. They may ultimately discard the embargo as useless, but their minds and hearts are set in stone, and their feet firmly set on quicksand.
José Manuel Pallí is a Cuban-born lawyer, originally trained in Argentina and has been a member of the Florida Bar since 1985.