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Cuba Détente


“I do not expect the changes I am announcing today to bring about a transformation of Cuban society overnight.”

— Barack Obama, Dec. 17, 2014

President Obama’s Dec. 17 statement announcing changes in U.S. Cuba policy was a mixture of historical truths and catch phrases drawn from the catalog of myths about Cuba and U.S. policy goals.

The first round of rule changes, announced by Jan. 16 by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), was significant in the areas of trade and banking. At the same time, much of the language is drawn from the old justifications for regime change. (Let us put aside the hypocrisies in Obama’s speech such as the instruction — coming from a country where labor unions have been systematically destroyed — that “Cuban workers should be free to form unions.”)

In his speech, Obama reworked Einstein’s famous definition of insanity to support his partial abandonment of the half-century attempts to destroy the Cuban revolution. “I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result,” said Obama. (If he means that the policy he has supported for six years is insane, what does that say about him?)

Nowhere in the speech did Obama renounce the longstanding U.S. commitment to regime change in Cuba or even acknowledge that it ever existed. While implicitly recognizing that the use of sanctions to achieve political results had failed, he continues to pursue them in Korea, Russia and elsewhere. One day after making the Cuba speech, he signed a bill imposing sanctions on Venezuela alleging that the government of President Nicolas Maduro had violated the human rights of protestors during violent anti-government demonstrations last February. The demonstrations were led by right-wing representatives of the Venezuelan elite who have long been backed by the United States.

We should note that the phrase about doing the same thing for over five decades and expecting a different result is incorrect. True, five decades ago the  Eisenhower administration broke diplomatic relations with Cuba, but since then his 10 successors, who account for 14 presidential terms, tried a variety of other “things” besides cutting diplomatic relations. There were the commando raid things launched from U.S. territory by Cuban exiles burning cane fields and sugar mills and the CIA-trained underground blowing up movie theaters and shopping centers. Then of course, there was the Bay of Pigs invasion thing by an exile expeditionary force landing in a swamp. That was a really big thing. With that failure came Bobby Kennedy’s Operation Mongoose thing, which was expected to be a let’s-get- it-right-this-time do-over of the Bay of Pigs disaster.

Since the 1962 Missile Crisis, there have been endless “democracy promotion” things financed by CIA front organizations. There have been clandestine anti-Cuban shortwave things broadcast from all manner of conveyances — yachts, balloons, zeppelins, airplanes. Leaflets, books and pamphlets of every kind were surreptitiously sent to Cuba in tourist luggage, in diplomatic pouches, hidden in hollow trees and even dropped from airplanes. Then there were the hit-and-run attacks from speedboats shooting up Russian ships, Cuban fishing boats, coastal hotels and hamlets.

Alan Gross, pretending to bring computer equipment to synagogues in Cuba that didn’t need them, is only a recent and not the last example of the often ludicrous plotting of various U.S. government agencies. Currently, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is at the forefront of the regime-change program. Obama did not mention the Gross thing but revealed that he would have proposed détente earlier had Cuba not imprisoned him.

Obama has it backwards. It’s not the “thing” that needs to be changed but the desired “result.” His new policy direction does not promise to end imperial bullying or to accept Cuban independence and sovereignty. Why else would he say the new thing he has in mind “will promote our values through engagement”?

Making the crime fit the punishment

To justify the long hostility toward Cuba, the United States has created a Cuba that never existed; a tropical gulag of indiscriminate terror where hordes of political prisoners rot while a cartoon dictator recites hours of his political poetry to a captive audience.

It is not surprising that the external and domestic opponents of the Cuban government, whether or not they are paid by the United States or its European partners, do not have their own vision of what a post-Castro society would look like. They and Obama are bound by the official blueprint drawn up by Congress in the Helms-Burton law of 1996, which essentially calls for a non-Cuban Cuba.

What would happen to employment, housing, health care and education in the new Cuba of Washington and Miami invention? Why is it that regime change is couched in fuzzy terms like “freedom” devoid of any economic, social or cultural content? And why is it that Obama criticizes the old policy because it “failed to advance our interests” without acknowledging what those interests really are?

Nothing in Obama’s speech corrects the half-century assault on truth. Many of the media commentaries on the Obama speech recite from the fantasies concocted over the years to mask the insanity of the policy. Here is just a sampling:

-Seventy-five Cubans dissidents were arrested in April 2003 in what is called the Black Spring. Ever since then they have been referred to as political prisoners or freedom fighters.

Actually, they were tried and convicted in a Cuban court for operating as paid agents of the pretend dissident movement funded by the United States. Roger Noriega, former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, conspired with James Cason, then head of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana, to openly encourage local dissidents hoping that the Cuban government would kick Cason out and give George W. Bush an excuse for closing the Cuban Interest Section in Washington and worsening bilateral relations. The scheme is what got the 75 arrested.

Among the 75 were journalists, few of whom ever practiced journalism. There also were pretend independent librarians paid by the United States to pose as part of a pretend grassroots defiance of a pretend Cuban control of what people could read.

A report to the American Library Association in 2001 described how one of the “independent” libraries in Cuba “consisted of four or five dusty shelves of books.” A woman in one of these libraries said, “No books had ever been confiscated [and] that she was not being intimidated or threatened by the government as a result of having this collection….The woman receives many of her books as well as payment for her activities from the U.S. and Mexico but would not identify individual sources. She said she was asked to operate the library because she is a dissident.”

-Cuba always blocks U.S. efforts to improve relations.

The example often cited is the shooting down in 1996 of two private exile planes near the Cuban coast. But Fidel Castro did not plot with well-known terrorist José Basulto, founder of Brothers to the Rescue, to have him organize provocative flights over the Cuban capital; Basulto did that on his own. It was the shootdown that led to enactment of the Helms-Burton law, which now prevents Obama from lifting the blockade. So, was it Fidel Castro or Helms, Burton and Basulto who torpedoed some supposed improvement in bilateral relations?

– The Cuban Five were spies.

Nearly every news outlet continues to refer to the five Cuban agents imprisoned in 1998 as “spies.” (The last three were released as part of the Obama opening.)

Actually, they were Cuban agents who infiltrated Brothers to the Rescue and other counterrevolutionary groups in Florida and then alerted the FBI to their plans for attacks against Cuba from the United States in violation of U.S. law.

– Alan Gross, who, was released from prison on “humanitarian grounds” as part of the Obama opening, was unjustly imprisoned in Cuba.

Actually, he was a sub-contractor working under a USAID grant and sent on five trips to Cuba to set up clandestine electronic networks as part of the U.S. subversion obsession and therefore correctly imprisoned. People who do that sort of thing in the United States can be tried as unregistered agents of a foreign power and sent to prison, just like Alan Gross.

Where did all those doctors come from?

The president’s positive comment on Cuba’s contribution to fighting Ebola in Africa has been noted as one of the inducements for change. Good, but Obama needs to explore what Cuba’s worldwide medical missionary program says about the island.

Imagine what it would take for the mythical Cuba the United States created, with its tiny population of the impoverished and the oppressed, to produce such quantities of surplus doctors, nurses and medical technicians who are now working in 66 countries. If Obama could admit that his mythical Cuba could never have done that, he might start setting the historical record straight and maybe ask the Cubans to advise him on Obamacare.

Today Cuba has 75,000 physicians or one per 160 inhabitants. Approximately 132,000 medical/health professionals have provided medical and dental attention to poor people abroad. At present, there are over 50,000 medical workers and no less than 25,000 doctors working outside of Cuba. In 2013, the health sector had 322,627 health professionals and technicians – that is, 28.9 per 1000 inhabitants — 76,836 physicians and 14,964 dentists as well as 88,364 nurses.

All of these accomplishments at home and abroad have taken place while the U.S. government persisted in enticing doctors, nurses and other professionals to leave Cuba. Remember, it was the people of Cuba who, we are incessantly told, make only $20 a month, who paid for their education even as Cuba confronted relentless U.S. financial and economic obstruction. Does Obama intend to reimburse the Cubans?

The United States calls the maze of economic and commercial sanctions an embargo. (The Cubans, referencing international law, call it a blockade.) Obama cannot unilaterally put an end to this kind of warfare but must wait for Congress to act. While the executive branch has the constitutional power to define foreign policy, Bill Clinton signed the Helms-Burton bill transferring control of Cuba policy to Congress. This was the second time he relinquished executive power over Cuba policy. The first was in 1992 when, running against George H.W. Bush, he announced his support for the Torricelli Act, which severely tightened trade restrictions. Obama’s Democratic predecessor made it necessary for him to go before Congress in his recent State of the Union message and ask Republicans to give back his foreign policy powers.

New rules

Clearly, the old rules lacked consistency. For example, when OFAC travel and remittance rules affecting Cuban-Americas were relaxed in the past, the justification was always to promote democracy and to separate Cubans from dependence on their government. But, when the same rules were made more severe, as under George W. Bush, the justifications were the same.

OFAC’s new regulations will materially ease the sanctions. Some of the changes sound like attempts through administrative regulations, to overturn fundamental sanctions in the Helms-Burton law. These include new rules allowing direct interbank transfers with the U.S. banking system, the use of U.S.-issued credit and debit cards and the elimination of “cash and carry,” which was a burdensome requirement for Cuba in paying for imports in convertible currencies.

Nevertheless, other changes may conflict with old practices. For example, will the U.S. Treasury Department protect credit/debit card companies from lawsuits by U.S. nationals seeking compensation from the Cuban government? The logistics of these transactions remains to be clarified.

Travel to Cuba can now be insured by U.S. companies and U.S. airlines could fly to Cuba from any city if market demand is sufficient instead of from a few government-selected cities. The major airlines could then reduce the advantage that the smaller companies enjoyed until now.

The travel ban has been relaxed even as OFAC preserves the principle of controlling travel for political purposes. The 12 categories of allowable travel remain in place although now without requiring a written specific license and organized travel and tours will be opened to more players.

Still, restrictions remain. Those who will be able to travel more freely are prohibited by a watchful government from having fun. New categories of travel are authorized under the new rules, “provided that the traveler’s schedule of activities does not include free time or recreation in excess of that consistent with a full-time schedule.”

Picking winners for a Cuban market economy

Trade sanctions have always had the effect of indirectly “managing” the Cuba economy. The new rules can determine who gets to invest in or trade with Cuba and which Cuban sectors will receive the most benefit. The majority of U.S. firms will be left out of the great Cuban market economy as envisioned in Washington.

Until now only agricultural and some medical and educational materials could be sold to Cuba. The new regulations allow for an increase in the kinds of goods that Cuba can import from the United States such as construction and agricultural tools and machinery. However, these can only be sold to non-state sectors such as co-ops and private entrepreneurs. Thus, certain sectors of the U.S. corporate world will be given preferential treatment.

OFAC is also giving Cuban entrepreneurs in the private sector an advantage over the state, but the Obama administration also wants U.S. information technology corporations to invest in Cuba’s telecommunications infrastructure, which means selling services, software and equipment to the Cuban government.

Rules applied to the banking sector raise significant questions. Financial institutions will be allowed to open accounts in Cuban banks to simplify transactions that are authorized by the United States and Cuba. But will Cuban banks be allowed to do the same in the United States?

Are these U.S. banks going to open dollar accounts in Cuban banks? Are they going to be held liable for breaking the restrictions that the United States Treasury Department imposed on dozens of banks for doing the same thing? Less than 24 months, ago the Bank of Nova Scotia, Commerzbak, Credit Suisse and many others were charged with billions of dollars in fines. Will the new rules be retroactively applied or is this a case of sorry — bad timing?

Since 1962, any ship that called on a Cuban port was prohibited from entering a U.S. port for at least six months. Now, ships transporting food, medicine, medical equipment and other materials may, in case of some emergency in Cuba, go to Cuba and then enter any U.S. port without prejudice as can any other ship owned by the same company. But Cuba is still not permitted to use U.S. currency in international transactions or purchase of technologies that might have more than 10 percent of U.S. components.

Some U.S. companies shall not suffer

Obama appears to have come around to where former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was in 1972 when he limited the scope of economic sanctions to protect the interests of selected U.S. corporations. In April of that year, Kissinger approved export licenses for three U.S. automakers with subsidiaries in Argentina permitting them to sell cars to Cuba. The State Department issued a statement that read in part, “Our policy toward Cuba is unchanged. We did not wish to see these U.S. companies suffer as a result of U.S. policy.”

Stifling trade and financial transactions in Cuba by withholding all the utilities of capitalism was inconsistent with promoting a free market, which is mentioned 13 times in Helms-Burton.

Do the new regulations show that Obama is rejecting the old insanity and striking out toward true respect for Cuban sovereignty? While there is symbolic importance in resuming formal diplomatic relations, there is nothing in normal diplomacy that prevents Obama from carrying on regime change schemes by other means. As he said Dec. 17, “we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement.”

Relaxing the restrictions on travel is fine but does anyone find Obama’s reasoning for doing so a little suspicious? “Nobody represents America’s values better,” said Obama, “than the American people, and I believe this contact will ultimately do more to empower the Cuban people.”

Obama wants to transfer information technology to Cuba. Good. He could also transfer to dissidents the supplies of military-grade microchips that Alan Gross was imprisoned for doing.

The day for celebration should be postponed until we see whether the true potential of Cuba’s social and political experiment can proceed unobstructed by an enraged superpower and whether the United States is ready to work with Cuba in bringing a more constructive future to both countries. Maybe by then Cuba can show the United States how to form labor unions.

Robert Sandels lives in Mexico and writes on Cuba and Mexico.

Nelson P. Valdés is Professor Emeritus, University of New Mexico. For more information on Cuba visit:


Robert Sandels writes on Cuba and Mexico. Nelson P. Valdés is Emeritus Professor of Sociology, University of New Mexico.

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