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A Flicker of Hope in the Wasteland?

In the wasteland that American politics has become, there are flickers of hope every now and then.

In the winter and spring of 2011, there was the wave of worker-led resistance to efforts by Republican governors and legislators to destroy public-sector unions.

Then, in the fall and winter, there was Occupy Wall Street and the many Occupy offshoots it spawned.

What was happening in America seemed of a piece with the Arab Spring.

There were even more obvious affinities with like-minded expressions of outrage elsewhere, especially in southern Europe, directed against austerity politics, neoliberal ideology and, ultimately, the finance-driven capitalism of our time.

The hope was real, but what sustained it was wishful thinking. Anyone not swept away by the enthusiasms that inevitably arise when people take their own affairs in hand should have seen this then.

They should have realized that with the historical Left gone, with prevailing political systems rigged in favor of entrenched power and wealth, and with the vast majority, the ninety-nine percent, having no idea what to do next and no way to get it done even if they did, it was bound to be a flash in the pan.

It is the same with the wave of protests now sweeping the United States in reaction to police killings of African American boys and men, and the de facto immunity from prosecution that the state accords their killers.

That police oppress communities of color is not exactly news. Lately, though, they have been going too far – striking a nerve and sparking a reaction.

A few mainly cosmetic, reforms could result. But, on matters of substance, these latest eruptions of people power are likely to have about as much effect as Occupy Wall Street did.

The hope sparked by the December 17 announcement that the United States and Cuba would resume diplomatic relations, and that America’s war of attrition against the Cuban Revolution would cease (or, at least, subside), is different.

In the other cases, circumstances forced flickers of hope to sputter out. In this case, circumstances are likely to move events forward.

Can it be that change for the better is in the works at last; that, this time, there really is reason for hope?

Strictly speaking, all we now have reason to think will change are U.S.-Cuba relations. This is significant, but it hardly amounts to a full-fledged change of course.

The demonstrators protesting police oppression envision more; the Occupy protestors envisioned a lot more.

But these are hardly reasons to discount the importance of what happened December 17 — and not only because the hope born then will likely amount to more than just a flicker.

This hope will not sputter out because the circumstances that brought it into being demonstrate the fragility of the status quo.

People power didn’t make it happen; but because it did happen, people power is now more likely than before, even after 2011 and 2014, to change the world.

To realize the aspirations of people in motion, real democracy is indispensable. Mass protests and popular mobilization can be part of the process.

But we are a long way from that now.

Popular sloganeering notwithstanding, in the circumstances that prevail, mass protests and popular mobilizations have less to do with “what democracy looks like” than with what it looks like for the people, the demos, to call for democracy — rule of, by and for the people.

If the people really did rule, the pent-up outrage that brought people into the streets three years ago, and that is bringing people back now, would never have erupted in the first place.

Attacks on workers’ rights, increasing inequality, and austerity politics were the proximate causes of the flickers of hope seen in 2011; now the issues are police misconduct and the inability of the judicial system to deal with it.

Ultimately, though, real democracy is what it is all about – not nominally free elections between bought and paid for Democrats and Republicans, but the people in power.

To be sure, public opinion in both the United States and Cuba was an underlying cause of December 17. But it didn’t happen because public pressure gave political elites no choice. It happened because the rulers of both countries wanted it so.

This would not seem remarkable except that, for more than half a century, America’s Cuba policy might as well have been on automatic pilot. More generally, American foreign policy has long seemed incapable of fundamental change. Now it no longer does.

The perception is even more consequential than the reality behind it. In the real world of politics, there is nothing so immobilizing as the idea that there is no alternative.

December 17 shattered that perception. It is too soon to tell what the broader consequences will be, but it is plain that they could be far-reaching.

If America’s Cuba policy can be turned around 180 degrees, why not other similarly longstanding, debilitating and apparently intractable problems: American policy towards Israel and occupied Palestine, for example?

No doubt, this thought has occurred to Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters; it must cause them grave concern. Of course, it is too soon to tell how, if at all, reverberations from Havana will affect Jerusalem. But it is plain that Israel’s right-wing government and its fascisant supporters at home and around the world have reason to worry.

Thanks mainly to campaign contributions – corruptus in extremis should be the motto not just of the Mayor’s office in Springfield, hometown of “The Simpsons,” but of the entire American political system — it will be harder to deliver on that prospect than it is to set U.S.-Cuba relations aright. It will be harder still to go even farther.

But it is possible to go farther, if the political will exists.

Don’t look to the Obama administration for that or, more generally, to the American political class. Look instead to the people in the streets three years ago and again today.

If we have learned anything over the past three years it is that there is a sleeping giant out there, yearning for a constructive purpose, that, if properly organized and directed, has the power to remake the world. What better purpose is there, for a starter, than forcing the United States to play a less destructive role in the world?

First, though, the idea must take hold, based on lived experience, that a better world really is possible; that there really are alternatives.

This is the larger meaning of December 17. On that day, it was shown that, even in the Age of Obama, the ship of state really can be turned around.

***

Did Obama suddenly see the light?

It is not likely. It is more likely by far that he is as wary as any President before him of what Noam Chomsky calls “the threat of a good example.”

Why did he do it then?   He must have felt that he had no choice.

He must have realized that, thanks to America’s declining position in Latin America and the world, the time was right to reset American-Cuban relations on a realist basis.

He deserves credit for that. Even with the diplomats of many nations and the Pope at his back, it took courage.

This must have been especially hard for a man who has otherwise been distinguished only for vain attempts at placating his most retrograde and obdurate domestic opponents. Anti-Castro animosity runs deep in their quarters.

“Realism” is the name that political scientists give to the default position in diplomacy. The idea, basically, is that a country’s foreign policy does, and ought to, advance its national interests in more or less the way that economic theorists think that economic agents normally do, and ought to, maximize their own interests.

Realism seems commonsensical enough, though this impression can fade when the concept of a national interest is subjected to scrutiny.

What is its connection to the interests of the nation’s people and to the interests of its economic and political elites? If, as seems hard to deny, national interests typically coincide with ruling class interests, why should anyone outside elite circles care about advancing them?

These are interesting questions to ponder.   For now, though, it will be best just to concede that these and other similarly vexing questions can be answered — well enough to conclude that countries really do have free-standing national interests that are not just misleading names for something else; in other words, that the basic intuition realism articulates is sound.

A reason to think that this is indeed the case is that we seldom need foreign policy “experts” to figure out what a country’s national interests are. In most cases, it is perfectly obvious.

With this understood, it is fair to say that American diplomacy has long been “exceptional” for its deviations from realism.   There are several reasons why.

The most important is that, from the time the United States became the world’s dominant industrial power in the final decades of the nineteenth century, its economic might has enabled it to get away with things that other “players” in the diplomatic game cannot.

Nations, like economic agents, have non- or extra-rational passions in addition to interests.   The United States has been more able than the others to indulge those passions – if need be, by setting its interests aside.

This became even easier after World War II — because, alone among the world’s great powers, the United States emerged from that war economically and militarily stronger than it had been before; and because the world order established in the war’s aftermath institutionalized America’s dominant position.

Dominant powers, hegemons, can do what others cannot, and get away with it. This creates unusual opportunities. It also makes dominant powers vulnerable to grave perils.

A second reason is that America’s leaders have long been more than usually susceptible to believing the self-serving justifications they advance in defense of what they do.

Thanks in part to servile corporate media, large sectors of the American public think similarly. Conventional wisdom has it that, while mistakes are sometimes made, America always means well; that it tries, and generally succeeds, to be on the side of right.

These beliefs give America’s leaders the confidence to act in ways that conflict with rational assessments of what is best for the United States and its people. The U.S.-Soviet rivalry around which world diplomacy was structured for more than four decades provides many examples.

But, even allowing for the factors that account for America’s exceptionalism in its dealings with other nations, American-Cuban relations are in a category by themselves. This has been the case for more than half a century.

The American Goliath has had it in for tiny Cuba for that long. Within months of New Year’s Day 1959, when Fidel Castro and the group around him seized state power in Cuba, Havana has been in Washington’s crosshairs. It has remained there ever since.

For President Eisenhower, Fidel Castro was a dangerous upstart. He wanted him gone.

When it came to that sort of thing, Ike was hardly a novice. On his watch, the CIA saw to it that governments outside the Soviet sphere of influence were goners if they defied American business interests. Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran and Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala found this out to their regret.

In Cuba in 1959, there were plenty of business interests Eisenhower wanted to protect. Evidently, it didn’t matter that the interests of organized crime were high on the list.

Nevertheless, against all odds, Ike – and the nine presidents that followed him – never got their way with Cuba. They did incalculable harm to the country and to its people, but the Revolution survived – with and without Soviet aid. American pressure was relentless, but the Cuban people, the ones who did not abscond, held on.

For six long years, Barack Obama seemed on his way to becoming the tenth president after Eisenhower whose plans the Cuban people and their government would foil.

Then lightening struck; the world changed. Goliath conceded defeat – not in so many words, but in effect.

This was bound to happen eventually – and not just because U.S. policy made no sense from a realist point of view. A global hegemon can get away with that.

It was bound to happen because U.S. policy made no sense period – from any point of view.

What is truly remarkable is that the policy Eisenhower and Kennedy began lasted for as long as it did.   What is even more remarkable is that Obama ended it – as best he could on his own — all at once.

Inasmuch as American hostility towards Cuba has been a fixed point on the political compass for so long, even a more audacious leader would likely have proceeded more slowly. Obama was showing signs of doing just that.

But, in the end, he set “gradualism” aside. The most cautious American President in decades didn’t even waste time testing the (political) waters.

This is why the events of December 17 will have an impact far beyond what they immediately achieve. Their suddenness and comprehensiveness give them an historic dimension that a more incremental program could not begin to approximate.

In due course, we will learn how this came to pass; for now, we can only marvel that it did, and be glad.

***

The late Saul Landau used to contrast American diplomacy towards Cuba in the first decade after the Cuban Revolution with Charles de Gaulle’s contemporaneous treatment of Algeria after it won independence from France.

The difference was not that de Gaulle was more respectful or less condescending towards Algerians than Eisenhower and Kennedy and their successors were towards Cubans. All imperialists are cut from the same cloth; they all regard the peoples their countries dominate, or used to dominate, with contempt, especially when they are brown or black.

The difference was that Eisenhower and Kennedy reacted defensively and stupidly, like offended parents, while de Gaulle was wiser. He was like a father who gives his rebellious children space to act out, making sure that they understand that he is there for them when they are ready to come back into the fold.

De Gaulle’s way worked – for a while. The American way never did anybody any good.  Why, then, did the United States keep at it for so long?

The Cubans offended and befuddled America’s leaders. But that was more than half a century ago. Fidel is now old and infirm, and Eisenhower and Kennedy are long gone. Only the grudge they left behind remains.

That grudge — and partisan politics. For Democrats and especially Republicans, anti-Castro animosity used to count for something – not so much nationally (once the shock of “losing” Cuba wore off), but in southern Florida and other places where vengeful Cuban refugees, gusanos, settled.

Nowadays, though, even in those places, Castro-haters are becoming extinct. The children and grandchildren of the Cubans who fled don’t think like earlier generations of Cuban-Americans did. Many of them, maybe a majority, see Obama’s point.

Therefore, on relations with Cuba, even bad reasons for setting the national interest aside no longer have much force. Obama’s move was courageous, but, in the end, he had little to lose and much to gain by forging ahead.

So, there it is: the Revolution held on; the counter-revolution failed. Cuba won; America lost.

***

Who knows what will come next.   Democratic socialism? Prosperity? One can only hope.

When the former Soviet Union and its eastern European “satellites” folded, allowing the West to march in, what followed was emphatically not democratic socialism. Prosperity has been an elusive goal in those countries as well, especially at first.

These considerations must have weighed heavily upon Cuba’s leaders. But it is not clear how relevant the Soviet and Eastern European experience is. Within what used to be called “the socialist camp,” Cuba has always been genuinely exceptional.

There is a memorable scene in Jean-Luc Goddard’s “Breathless” in which Patricia (Jean Seberg) goes to Orly airport for a press conference with an American author modeled on Henry Miller. She asks him what his goal in life is. He says: “to attain immortality, and then to die.”

Those words seem strangely relevant now. At the very worst, this will be the Cuban Revolution’s fate. In the face of everything the American colossus could throw at it, the Revolution survived; it won for itself the only kind of immortality worth attaining.

And while it survived, it served as a beacon of hope – in Latin America and Africa and throughout the world. Despite all the hardships America leveled upon the Cuban people, they succeeded in making Cuba a good enough example to cause the stewards of the empire concern.

What will happen when American money and American personnel start flowing in?

Cuba prevailed in the face of adversity.   The Cuban people and their government will now have to find ways to prevail in its absence.

Hugo Chavez used to ask, half jokingly, why there are no coups in the United States? The answer: because there is no American embassy. Unless exceptionally dumb Republicans in Congress refuse to allocate money for one, Cuba will soon have an American embassy to worry about.

Perhaps this is no big deal; after all, what more can the United States throw at the Cubans than it already has?   Time will tell.

The Cuban Revolution has shown, time and again, that it has more than the proverbial nine lives of a cat.

Liberal interventionists and other neocons are plainly hoping that this time around, Cuba’s luck will run out. No doubt, they are presently at work trying to turn their dream into a reality.

They have ample resources at their disposal and they are not shy about using them. But they are hardly omnipotent; and neither, as they say this time of year, are they the brightest bulbs on the tree. The chances are therefore good that post-embargo Cuba will continue to keep the predations of Ronald Reagan’s “shining city on a hill” at bay.

Still, Cuba’s way forward is far from secure, and there is a lot riding on it. Ironically, to realize the promise of December 17, Cuba must now turn itself into what the deluded Reagan and, by his own account, Obama too think America is.

They must turn their country into what, in the real world, Washington has feared Cuba would become ever since it broke free from the American ambit: a blessing for its people and an example for the world.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

 

 

 

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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