Cuba and the Obama Administration

The incoming Obama administration is being bombarded with suggestions on how to deal with Cuba.  In the main, they favor relaxing or ending the blockade (embargo) and travel ban.  The principal argument is that trade and diplomatic relations will nudge Cuba toward democratic capitalism, a policy adjustment that differs from the current regime-change strategy mainly in its tactical considerations.

The recommendations are being advanced while both the incoming and outgoing administrations in Washington are abandoning all but the pretense of a competitive free market.  Through policy inertia, it seems, memos keep going out to other countries urging them to stick resolutely to the free-market model.

A recent report from the Partnership for the Americas Commission of the Washington-based think tank the Brookings Institution proposes a broad range of generally positive reform initiatives for Latin America and Caribbean policies in such areas as environment, energy, migration, and international cooperation.[1]

The advice on Cuba, nevertheless, follows the pattern set earlier this year by the Council on Foreign Relations, which repackaged President George W. Bush’s Cuba overthrow policy and placed it back on the shelf as “A New Direction for a New Reality.”[2]

The Brookings recommendations, among others, propose a soft version of traditional US hegemony tactics in the guise of democracy promotion. Democracy promotion as a policy tool has been strengthened during the Bush years most notably at the 2001 Quebec Summit of the Americas where Bush insisted on a declaration making democracy inseparable from a market economy.[3]

Linking the two in this way allows overthrow advocates to skip lightly over the part about destroying economies and undermining governments and to justify economic warfare by insisting that sanctions help populations in target countries achieve democracy.

Democracy promotion in Latin America and elsewhere is what replaced the more indelicate policy of maintaining US hegemony through direct support of military regimes.  The soft version includes such practices as funding “party-building” and “electoral education” by channeling funds through the National Republican Institute (NRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and other US-government front organizations to co-opt civil society in target counties.

Failing to confront the real policy underneath the official blather about democracy and freedom leaves these reports the sole option of criticizing “errors” of phantom policies.

In his groundbreaking study, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, U.S. Intervention, and Hegemony, William I. Robinson warns, “US policy is not explained by specific policy views of individuals, much less by policy pronouncements by political leaders taken at face value.  Besides, US policy is not be analyzed on the basis of what policy makers say they do, but what they actually do”.[4]

Softening the Bush plan

For a compendium of what Brookings aims to reform, we have reports from Bush’s Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba (2004, 2006).[5]  By now, the remaking of Cuba as envisioned in them should have been well underway. They are essentially a vast comic-book blueprint for remaking Cuba through privatization along lines applied with disastrous effect in the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, a free-trade agreement with the United States, and membership in the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). These institutions are notorious for the destructiveness of their structural adjustment programs.

Just as democracy promotion replaced the traditional policy of creating and supporting military dictatorships, many of the current recommendations for a new Latin America policy call for an end to brutal sanctions, the constant moralizing and bluster from Washington and the State Department’s lists of states that supposedly sponsor terrorism, drug trafficking and child molestation.

Instead of issuing a new gloss on the plans of the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which were predicated on the destruction of the Cuban government, the report would have the next president rely on the subversive effects of tourism, investment and democracy promotion to do the job.

A great many of these recommendations on Cuba are laudable if taken in parts.  The context for them, however, is a strategic rebalancing of the factors of control in Latin America as the region and its resources drift away toward China and inward toward national and regional interests.

One key element offered to correct these trends is free trade.  After alluding briefly to some of the damage already done through bilateral free-trade pacts, the Brookings report goes on to recommend passage of the Colombia and Panama free-trade agreements on the curious ground that doing so will uphold Washington’s “credibility.”

The report does not explain why economies of the weaker partners – particularly their agricultural sectors – should be damaged for the sake of some undefined US credibility.

After the pointless credibility exercise, the report advises the new administration to stop pursuing bilateral pacts.  The US version of free trade has been exposed as having more to do with the free flow of capital and free access to national markets and resources in asymmetric arrangements.  Still, the Brookings report seeks to revive the carcass of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) under the guise of broad multilateral agreements through the World Trade Organization (WTO) Doha Round of trade negotiations.

However, to accomplish that, the US and Europe would have to radically alter their protectionist policies and addiction to agricultural subsidies. How, for example, is the United States going to justify in Doha talks its selective subsides (bailouts) for US car manufacturers but not for foreign companies manufacturing cars in the United States?

If everything else fails, Brookings recommends measures that sound progressive on the surface but hint at a continued underlying asymmetry. The United States should, the report says, “continue to deepen economic integration with the LAC [Latin American and Caribbean] countries, with which it already has free trade agreements, by building on and improving existing forums.  Reducing the cost of shipping goods and services across North American borders should remain a priority.”

Subversion through trade

Another Washington think tank, the Cato Institute, has been issuing its views on Cuba for several years in its Handbook on Policy, an exhaustive set of recommendations to Congress on domestic and foreign policies.  It has, since 1999, consistently called for a reversal of the Cuba sanctions policy.[6] Its most recent edition (2005) is blunt on trade matters, unafraid to use the word “subversion” in connection with opening up trade with Cuba.

“An open U.S. trade policy,” says the current handbook, “is likely to be more subversive of [Cuba’s]…system than is an embargo.  Proponents of the Cuban embargo vastly underestimate the extent to which increased foreign trade and investment can undermine Cuban communism even if that business is conducted with state entities.”

The handbook argues against sanctions, not because of their inherent injustice, but because, “they have, in fact, failed to bring about democratic regimes anywhere in the hemisphere, and Cuba has been no exception.”

There is scant evidence to support the fantasy that the United States has a history of applying economic sanctions anywhere in the Hemisphere to bring about democracy.

Discussing the history of US military interventions, Chalmers Johnson writes, “It should be noted that since 1947, while we have used our military power for political and military gain in a long list of counties, in no instance has democratic government come about as a direct result.”[7]

Most of the advice concerning Cuba policy repeats the common refrain that maintaining the blockade gives the Cuban government an excuse for its dictatorship and that ending it could deliver a fatal blow to the regime.

Oblivious to the long history of US aggression against Cuba, an editorial in the New York Times, repeating the main points in the Brookings report, says that the economic embargo, “has given Mr. Castro and his cronies a never-ending excuse for their failures and misdeeds.”[8]

The Cato report likewise cites well-known Cuban dissidents as authorities on this theory and argues, “The more supporters of the embargo stress the importance of sanctions in bringing Castro down the more credible becomes Castro’s claim that the United States is responsible for Cuba’s misery.”

Sort of reforming Cuba policy

The Brookings report’s sensible recommendations for Cuba rest on the bedrock of traditional overthrow policy.  The next president, says the report, should work with members of the European Union and other countries to create a multilateral fund for civil society that will train future entrepreneurs in “management and innovation.”  This is language straight out of the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, a major part of what Brookings seeks to reform and what the Cato report wants repealed outright.[9]

One would think that after 50 years of surviving blockade and physical assaults by the United States Cuba had surely demonstrated management skill and innovation.  In the US economy, these traits seem to have been most highly developed in the financial sector’s addiction to asset bubbles and Ponzi schemes.

The rationale for all this is to “improve the livelihoods of large segments of the population,” and “increase the demand from within Cuba for expanded economic freedoms and opportunities for advancement, to enable legitimate Cuban voices to shape a representative, accountable, and sustainable transition to democracy.”

Such recommendations do not differ substantially from current attempts to undermine the Cuban economy by putting dollars into private hands to sustain a dissident movement, interrupt socialist capital accumulation and promote the dual currency system, which is always held up as an example of Cuba’s economic failures.

The absurdity of the suggestion to pump up a national entrepreneurial class in Cuba is exposed simply by asking how the funds would be introduced into Cuba.  Would the Cuban government be asked to take part in the dismantling of its own system by acting as fiduciary for the foreign funds or would they be injected somehow into a stream of direct foreign investment essentially outside of government control?  If the latter, Cuba could have two economies, one of its own and another run by foreign countries.

Obviously, the report has skipped ahead a few steps to suggest measures that could only be imposed in a post-socialist Cuba.  And that would be brought about by -.what?

As in most blueprints for remaking another society, this one imagines there are “legitimate voices” among all the illegitimate voices in Cuba and that the Brookings Institution can tell them apart.

The Draino effect: flushing away communism

There is broad consensus on lifting the travel ban, but the Brookings commission’s reasons for allowing Americans to travel to Cuba (“promote small businesses and provide information to the people”) are fundamentally interventionist.  As one newspaper editorial put it, “The influx of American money, vitality and friendship probably would flush away remnants of communism.[10]

If Cuba wants more small businesses, it can start them.  As for information, what information would an American traveler steeped in ignorance about Cuba bring to Cuba?  The Brookings report does not say anything about free entry of Cubans into the United States.  They might bring their ideas about business and their information on free universal public education and healthcare or how to manage an economy under siege.

Had the authors of these reports really wanted to offer advice on what is wrong with US policy in Latin America and especially in Cuba and Venezuela they would have first dwelt at length on the last 50 years or so of US subversion, invasions, CIA-engineered black operations and assassinations, and other methods of control exercised all over the region.

Shifting ground under U.S. policy

Little if any high-powered advice to the incoming administration takes into account the shifting ground upon which US economic ideology rests. Usually omitted is the current trend in the United States toward industrial policy and elements of a command economy blurring the line between free-market capitalism and Cuban socialism.

It makes little sense to rail against socialism from the vantage point of a debt-based economy brought to ruin by the logic of the unfettered marketplace.  A country that has nationalized in all but name whole sectors of its economy to save itself from the very system it wishes to foist onto others should be asking others for advice on how to do it properly.

Both outgoing and incoming administrations have chosen to save the system with massive bailouts forcing taxpayers to suffer for corporate sins instead of allowing the sacred forces of the market to sort out the financial crisis.  The global movement toward state intervention in the failing financial and industrial sectors has made the traditional criticism of socialism by democratic market countries no longer plausible.

Outlining a scenario in which the current recession bottoms out at a world wage- and asset-price equilibrium, Martin Hutchinson writes, “Throughout the world, but particularly in the United States and Western Europe, governments have resorted to bailouts and ‘stimulus packages’ that have exploded public sector deficits and increased the power of government in the economy.”[11]

Following the takeover in September 2008 of the US insurance giant AIG, the prescient economist Nouriel Roubini wrote in his blog that the Federal Reserve and US Treasury had attempted “the biggest government intervention and nationalizations in the recent history of humanity.”  He called it, “the biggest and most socialist government intervention in economic affairs since the formation of the Soviet Union and Communist China.”[12]

Such interventions cost money that has to be borrowed.  That in turn impinges on the ability of entrepreneurs and consumers to finance their aspirations.  Hogging available capital, says Hutchinson, “crowds out other more productive uses of capital,” and that means a further weakening of the private sector.”

At their November meeting in Washington, the feckless G-20 leaders likewise were unable to advance any better solutions for the spreading global recession than more bailouts, while simultaneously touting the anodyne properties of the free market.

In their final declaration, Bush and his G-20 colleagues promised, “Our work will be guided by a shared belief that market principles, open trade and investment regimes, and effectively regulated financial markets foster the dynamism, innovation, and entrepreneurship that are essential for economic growth, employment, and poverty reduction.”[13]

Three days later, India led off the stampede out of the marketplace with a 20% protective tariff on soybean oil, and on December 10, Russia slapped a 35% maximum duty on imported cars.[14]

In a recent interview with CNN, Bush said he had “abandoned free market principles to save the free market system.”  As a statement confessing the ultimate in policy exhaustion, it surely ranks alongside the immortal line from the Vietnam War era, “it was necessary to bomb the village in order to save it.”[15]

Yet, these state capitalists who claim to be free trade marketeers use huge deficit financing in order to further enrich financial institutions in the world, while denying access to basic human services to the world at large. The Brookings Institution, and similar entities seem oblivious to bankruptcy of their economic system and ideological recipes.

Cuba, in the meantime, would be wise to take what it needs from whatever initiatives may originate in the United States if it serves the country’s needs, while rejecting those elements that do not serve its purpose. Foreign interventionism, whatever the guise, has no future in the island.

ROBERT SANDELS is a writer for Cuba-L Direct.


[1] “Rethinking U.S.-Latin American Relations: A Hemispheric Partnership for a Turbulent World,” Report of the Partnership for the Americas Commission,

The Brookings Institution (Washington, DC), November 25, 2008.

[2] “U.S.-Latin America Relations: A New Direction for a New Reality,” Council on Foreign Relations 05/15/08. See also “The Council on Foreign Relations Has Some Dubious Advice for the Next President,” Cuba-L Analysis (Albuquerque), 05/29/08.

[3] The summit declared democracy “fundamental to the advancement of all our objectives,” It implicitly set democracy as a requisite for a state’s “participation. in the Summit of the Americas process.” Declaration of Quebec City, 04/20/01.

[4] William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, U.S. Intervention, and Hegemony, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996, p.5.

[5] Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba: Report to the President, July 2006.

[6] “Cato Handbook on Policy,” The Cato Institute (Washington, DC), 2005, 6th ed., ch. 63.

[7] Chalmers Johnson, Nemesis, the Last Days of the American Republic, New York: Holt, 2006, p.19.

[8] New York Times, 11/28/08.

[9] “To encourage other countries and multilateral organizations to provide similar assistance, and to work cooperatively with such countries and organizations to coordinate such assistance.” Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity [Helms-Burton] Act of 1996, Section 201 (8).

[10]  “Enough; Stop hurting Cubans,” The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette, 12/11/08.

[11] Martin Hutchinson, “Worse than the Great Depression,” Asia Times, 12/10/08.

[12] Nouriel Roubini, Reprinted in Guardian, 9/18/09.

[13] Declaration on the Summit of Financial Markets and the World Economy, 11/15/08.

[14] The Washington Post, 12/22/08.

[15] Attributed to NBC correspondent Peter Arnett in 1968 quoting an unnamed officer. Its authenticity has been questioned by some conservative supporters of the war.






ROBERT SANDELS is an analyst and writer for Cuba-L Direct. This article was written for CounterPunch and Cuba-L Direct.