US-Cuba Policy: "Still Stuck in the Past"

U.S.-Cuba relations are once again front and center as the meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, begins today.

Cuba, expelled from the OAS in 1962 at the height of the Cold War, will not be present at the gathering. But the United States is facing a virtually united front of Latin American nations demanding that Cuba be readmitted. Chilean Jose Miguel Insulza, the secretary general of the organization, declares, “I want to be clear: I want Cuba back in the Inter-American system…Cuba is a member of the OAS. Its flag is there.”

The Obama Administration is sending contradictory signals about what it is up to. On April 20, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who will be leading the U.S. delegation to Tegucigalpa, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “Any effort to admit Cuba into the OAS is really in Cuba’s hands,” referring to past U.S. demands that Cuba change its political system.

Two days later, however, the United States proposed reopening discussions on immigration issues that had been suspended early in the Bush Administration. Cuba responded positively to this overture, saying it also wants to talk about regular postal services and to discuss drug interdiction and disaster relief along with immigration concerns. Even before this announcement, Fidel Castro, the retired leader who still exerts considerable influence in the government now headed by his brother, Raul Castro, stated Cuba is willing to dialogue on “narcotrafficking, organized crime, human trafficking, and to expand other forms of cooperation such as fighting epidemics and natural catastrophes.”

But the main stumbling bloc to admittance to the OAS and the normalization of trade relations remains Washington’s inisistance that Cuba transform its government. Raul has made clear that there will be no such change, while Fidel declares, “cooperation can exist between peoples with different political conceptions.”

Washington needs to get over its dogmatic assertion that Cuba has a represessive and non-representative government that puts it beyond the pale as compared to other communist countries, like Vietnam and China, or authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The United States has had normal diplomatic and economic relations with those nations for years.

Cuba today is hardly a police state. People speak their minds freely in the streets as any visitor to the island can attest. And the country has vibrant social movements that are able to press for their rights. Just this past May 16, marchers in Havana took to the streets to celebrate the national day against homophobia. Mariela Castro, Raul’s daughter, participated in the demonstration, saying, “being gay is not a problem, the problem is homophobia,” adding, “There is a movement in the consciousness of the people that includes government functionaries and leaders.”

The Cuban revolution, which just celebrated its 50th anniverary, is in a process of transition and transformation. As Rafael Hernandez, the director of the widely read social and cultural journal Temas told me, “We are rethinking the very nature of society and what socialism means. A discussion is opening up on many fronts over where we are headed, how property is to be defined, what is the role of the market, and how we can achieve greater political participation, particularly among the youth.

In the economy, market reforms and experimentation are taking place, especially in agriculture and the selling of food stuffs. Last year, legislation was passed permitting anyone to solicit the government for 10 hectares of idle land that can be held and farmed for an indefinite period of time. Over 80,000 people have petitioned for land and are in the process of getting it. The new farmers have the right to work the land independently and sell their produce on the open market. The tendency is for them to join a cooperative because of the availability of regularized inputs, not because the state is trying to deny them access, but because the coops have more purchasing clout.

While an OAS working group has been set up in an effort to reconcile the U.S. and the Latin American positions, it appears to be going nowhere. Wayne Smith, of the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C., who served as head of the U.S. Interests Desk in Havana from 1979-82, says, “The Obama Administration is trying to appease the Latin American governments by saying it will discuss immigration issues and is open to some degree of engagement with the Cubans.”

The OAS could readmit Cuba with the vote of two-thirds of its 30 members. Cuba is not pushing for readmittance, however, with Fidel Castro declaring, “Cuba respects the criteria of the governments of our brothers in Latin America and the Caribbean who think differently, but we do not wish to be part of that institution.” Over the years the OAS has backed U.S. aggression in Latin America, most notably the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, and then the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1965.

Regardless of what happens at the OAS meetings, “the United States will come out with egg on its face,” predicts Smith. “U.S. policy is still stuck in the past.”

ROGER BURBACH is the director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) and a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley.


ROGER BURBACH is the director of the Center for the Study of the Americas (CENSA) and a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley and author of The Pinochet Affair.