Obama Give me Five

Obama, Give Me Five

As the US relaxes its 53-year old travel, commercial and diplomatic restrictions against Cuba, Alex Wilks discusses the repercussions this will have on Cuban citizens.  

All over Cuba you can find posters showing an outstretched palm, asking Obama to ‘give me five’. They’re part of the campaign to release the so-called ‘Cuban five’, undercover agents who were imprisoned in Miami in 1998, for spying on right-wing dissidents.

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In December last year, Obama gave Cuba five, or rather the three remaining members, in exchange for Alan Gross, a USAID contractor who had been working on a telecoms infrastructure project and also convicted by the Cubans for spying. Almost immediately after the swap followed the historic announcement that the White House would relax its 53-year old travel, commercial and diplomatic restrictions against Cuba.

The news caught many around the world by surprise and was greeted with cautious excitement on the streets of Havana. It is too early to say whether this dramatic reversal in policy marks the beginnings of a more open Cuba, but it is clear that life is changing for those living on the communist Caribbean island and that its repercussions will be felt in the region.

Handshakes and Realpolitik

The first clues of the thawing of relations came at Nelson Mandela’s funeral in December 2013, when President Obama shook Raul Castro’s hand. The apparently unscripted gesture was in fact the product of months of intense diplomatic negotiations, brokered by the Vatican. One of the first international actions of the newly appointed Pope Francis – the first Latin American leader of the Catholic Church – was to send a letter to both leaders, calling on them to ‘to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest’ and then to host the negotiations between the two countries at which the breakthrough is said to have been made. Once the prisoners had been exchanged, the barriers between the two nations began tumbling down.

Venezuela’s President Maduro was fuming. ‘Insolent Yankees… they should shove their visas where they should be shoved’, he raged. Cuba has long been reliant on support from the oil-rich country however its economy is in free-fall and itself recently under US sanctions. It is also wracked with political instability, especially following the death of Hugo Chavez and is so no longer a guaranteed source of income. A reluctance to return to the grim austerity of the ‘Special Period’ of the 1990s which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union will have made Castro eager to diversify and to negotiate with the US.

It is true that Castro may actually have done Maduro a favour by relieving the Venezuelan economy of the burden of the huge annual oil payments and aid and Cuba will probably continue supporting Venezuela’s public health programs with its doctors. However whilst other leftist Latin American governments that emerged in the so-called ‘Pink Tide’ of the last decade took more pragmatic policy decisions, Cuba and Venezuela hung on more stubbornly to ideological principles, as well as to anti-imperialist rhetoric. It is now increasingly looking like it is Venezuela who has been left out in the cold.

What does it mean for ordinary Cubans?

ordinary Cubans

Now that the dust has settled, ordinary Cubans are trying to work out what this all means for them. The most predictable impact will be on tourism, with many Americans now being able to visit the island which will significantly boost Cuba’s emerging private sector – the bed and breakfasts, restaurants, taxis which exist on the fringes of the state-dominated tourism industry.

Sanctions on US citizens sending remittances to the island will be lifted, effectively meaning that Cuban-Americans can send more money to their relatives back home. More cash will therefore flow into the hands of private individuals, stimulating the small-scale businesses that have sprung up from the list of the 201 government-approved professions, a list which may well see expansion.

It is the loosening of restrictions on telecommunications and internet access that could have the most impact on everyday political life. Cubans are proud of the Revolution’s protection of economic, social and cultural rights the World Bank rates its public health and education systems as the best in Latin America and its state-sponsored cultural programs are world-famous. However its record regarding civil and political rights, particularly freedom of expression, association and access to information has always been problematic. According to Freedom House, Cuba is one of the most repressive environments for the internet, with experts estimating only 5% of Cubans have periodic access to the worldwide web via black market sales of minutes by those permitted to have internet access. Many Cubans are growing frustrated at this isolation from the worldwide web and lack of access to communication and information technologies.

Cuba also has a notoriously expansive state surveillance apparatus and almost every street corner has citizens’ ‘Revolutionary Defence Committees’ that are tasked with reporting ‘counter-revolutionary activities’ to the authorities. It also has one of the highest number of prisoners per capita in the world, many of whom are political. However, recently Havana has grown slightly more tolerant of political dissidents and just last month released 53 more political prisoners. Blogger Yoanni Sanchez, who won international fame for her critical portrayal of life in contemporary Cuba was permitted last year to open online daily newspaper 14ymedio.com, which is produced in Havana and provides a forum for politically opposing views.

The new measures mean that it will be easier for US companies to work on Cuba’s dilapidated communications infrastructure, increasing access to internet and telecommunication technologies. In addition to being able to travel more and do more business, Cubans will also begin to communicate with each other and the outside world more easily. This could see the opening up of space for the exchange of differing political views and an improvement in the protection of free speech and other civil and political rights.

Cautious optimism

It remains unlikely that any reforms, economic, political or otherwise, will happen quickly. The lifting of the US embargo will need the approval of Congress, of which Obama has lost control. In his final public address of last year Raul Castro emphasised that Cuba would remain a socialist state and at the end of last year, staff from 14ymedio.com were arrested for attending a public free speech demonstration.

However, as a senior member of the Cuban Communist Party told me in Havana last spring, “We are proud of the Revolution’s achievement. Our brand of socialism is now mature enough to modify itself and adapt to better meet the needs of the Cuban people.” As the Cuban Revolution finds ways to adapt to the realities of today’s world, Obama’s reach out has surely given its people new hope for the future.