Cuba-US Relations: What’s in a gesture?

Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro exchanged a handshake and apparently warm words at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service recently. This encounter  surprised many and it seemed that Nelson Mandela was still helping to build bridges, even in death. But what does this really mean, if anything, for the future of Cuba-US relations?

Whilst the mainstream press became rather excited over this apparently iconic handshake, Cuba-watchers will tell you that it would be a mistake to invest too much hope in this simple human gesture. After all, this is not the first time a serving US President has shaken the hand of a Cuban leader called Castro. President Bill Clinton shook the hand of Fidel Castro at a UN summit in 2000. Another former US President, Jimmy Carter, has even visited the island as a guest of the Castro’s on two occasions, most recently in 2011. Just last February, Democratic senator Patrick Leahy led a delegation of seven US lawmakers to the island to meet with the Cuban President. But none of these gestures have led to any major thaw in relations. It seems that many expect a rapprochement of Cuba-US relations to come from a single gesture from the corridors of power in Washington and Havana.   

But let’s be clear, relations are deeply complex and fraught with enormous difficulties and cannot be remedied by any simple human gesture such as a handshake. The case of the US government subcontractor Alan Gross (who is serving a 15 year sentence in Cuba for clandestinely distributing satellite phones and computer equipment to the Jewish community in Havana), as well as that of the imprisoned Cuban intelligence officers known as the ‘Cuban Five’ (four of which still linger in US jails convicted of espionage for infiltrating south Florida based anti-Castro groups in the 1990’s) provide perhaps the greatest practical impediments to improved relations between the two governments at the moment.

The state of Florida (so important in US Presidential elections) has traditionally been home to an extremely influential Cuban-American lobby which has ferociously opposed communist Cuba in Washington for decades. Organisations such as the Cuban-American National Foundation have pushed for a continuation of a failed economic embargo of the island (a policy first initiated in October 1960). In Cuba, the revolutionary government has based much of its political ideology around the principles of anti-imperialism and opposition to United States hegemony in Latin America. This dogmatic mindset on both sides of the Florida straits has impeded progress for more than half a century.

But with the dinosaurs of yesteryear fading into the annals of history, there is new hope. Polls show that the majority of Cuban-Americans residing in Miami now see the embargo for what it is, an abject failure. The vast majority of Cuban’s that have migrated to the United States in the last twenty years or so, have done so for economic rather than political reasons. So-called ‘people to people’ exchanges across the Florida straits haven’t been so important for decades. Cuban-Americans are now legally visiting the island in record numbers with 350,000 visiting last year alone, and that’s not to mention the 98,000 non Cuban-American US citizens that visited for religious, cultural or academic reasons during the same period.

Cuba itself has been galloping towards change under the stewardship of Raul Castro since 2008. In a relatively short space of time, life for many Cubans has changed significantly. The island’s residents are now permitted freedoms that were almost unthinkable just a decade ago. Electrical goods such as computers, DVD players, rice cookers and microwaves are now freely available on the island (albeit at outrageous prices). Cubans are now able to access high-speed broadband internet (albeit at a hefty premium and only via state-run internet cafes). Mobile phones have become an almost   national obsession on the island, and Cubans are now permitted to open and run private businesses and many are thriving economically for the first time in generations as a result. For the first time in decades, houses and cars are bought and sold legally. And as of this year, most Cubans are now permitted to travel abroad without government permission for the time in more than fifty years.  

These reforms have been met with enormous enthusiasm on the streets of Havana. But the changes have (presumably inadvertently) encouraged a shift in values and attitudes amongst a growing sector of the population. Many feel that the socialist contract has been broken as Raul Castro reduces and cuts state benefits, whilst pushing hundreds of thousands of state workers into the private sector. The mantra of revolutionary solidarity and sacrifice is being eroded by more capitalist ideals. Most Cuban teenagers can probably tell you more about the spec. of the latest iPhone than the tenets of the revolution. Young people are more interested in the latest fashion accessories than Che’s theory of the new socialist man. Generally speaking, the youth of Cuba just do not share the older generation’s revolutionary zeal for self-sacrifice and socialist revolution. The emerging middle class is leading the charge towards economic prosperity not seen since before the revolution, and they like what they see. Moneyed Cubans fill Havana eateries and nightspots which bustle with confidence and opulence to rival any Latin American capital. The Cuban President argues that the Communist system is being ‘updated’ rather than abandoned, but the reality on the street tells a different story. An almost irresistible sense of change fills the air in Havana. Whilst there doesn’t appear to be much stomach for political upheaval at the moment, it remains to be seen how long the political elite can survive the inevitable passing of the ‘heroic generation’, who have held the ‘revolutionary’ state together since 1959.

Those hoping for real change in Cuba-US relations should look towards the organic transition to normality already taking place. Expect change to be driven by everyday people in the streets of Miami and Havana, rather than pinning there hopes on any cordial handshake between leaders at the top.