Obama in Cuba: The rea­sons for his trip

The Star (St. Lucia) - - INTERNATIONAL - By Joaquín Roy FLORIDA, United States,

At this stage of the process that be­gan in De­cem­ber 2014 with the sur­prise an­nounce­ment of the open­ing of re­la­tions be­tween the United States and Cuba, hardly any­thing counts as spec­tac­u­lar news. The de­tail in the de­ci­sion by Wash­ing­ton and Ha­vana that made news in the tra­di­tional sense (man bites dog) was that the plan to sit down and talk im­plied that Cuba gave up its prior de­mand that the em­bargo be lifted. The United States, for its part, ac­cepted that Cuba did not un­der­take to make any spe­cial changes to its own political sys­tem.

Since then, each side has been fol­low­ing a ba­sic script that should one day lead to com­plete open­ing. All we need ask our­selves is what U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has to gain with his visit to Cuba on 21-22 March, a de­ci­sion not with­out risks, and what might be the mo­ti­va­tion for its early date. The key is as much the forth­com­ing Cuban cal­en­dar as that of the United States.

In the Cuban con­text, de­vel­op­ments in the political and eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion in Latin Amer­ica do not sup­port an at­ti­tude of in­er­tia and wait­ing for cir­cum­stances to im­prove while Raúl Cas­tro’s term of govern­ment runs out (al­though that does not nec­es­sar­ily mean a regime change). Sub­stan­tial changes are oc­cur­ring in some ar­eas of Latin Amer­ica that will have an in­escapable ef­fect in Ha­vana.

The in­sta­bil­ity in Venezuela, to­gether with the change of govern­ment in Ar­gentina, could trig­ger a mod­i­fi­ca­tion of Cuba’s al­liances. Al­though it is too soon to pre­dict a ma­jor re­con­fig­u­ra­tion of al­liances, a grad­ual fall of left­lean­ing pop­ulism and a re­turn to the preva­lence of mod­er­a­tion and neo-lib­er­al­ism can­not be ruled out. There­fore, bal­anc­ing the en­dur­ing pres­ence of Cuba in Latin Amer­ica with good re­la­tions with Wash­ing­ton is a pri­or­ity. Here, Obama comes to the res­cue.

The U.S. Pres­i­dent has the ad­van­tage that his for­merly risky wa­ger on Cuba no longer af­fects his political present or fu­ture. He is no longer a pres­i­den­tial can­di­date. The is­sue of Cuba no longer has the weight it had years ago in the elec­toral con­text of Florida, where the vote count no longer de­pends on the Cuban is­sue. The in­flu­ence of sec­tors op­posed to nor­mal­iza­tion and the end of the em­bargo has been eroded by the pas­sage of time and cir­cum­stances. In the rest of U.S. ter­ri­tory, Cuba does not ex­ist as a “prob­lem”. This is be­com­ing clear in the Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic pri­mary cam­paigns, where not even can­di­dates of Cuban ori­gin (Ted Cruz and Marco Ru­bio) can ex­ploit what used to be an ad­van­tage. What is more, de­mand­ing the end of trade bar­ri­ers is seen as ben­e­fi­cial to the economies of many states pro­duc­ing goods that Cuba needs and wants to buy.

Re­turn­ing to the Cuba-Latin Amer­ica sce­nario, the changes in political and so­cial ten­sions bring about the ben­e­fit of lower pres­sure in other re­gions of the planet. With the dis­ap­pear­ance of Cuba as a source of in­fil­tra­tion in dif­fer­ent ar­eas (Africa, the Caribbean, South Amer­ica), Ha­vana is even tak­ing on a co­op­er­a­tive role as me­di­a­tor in do­mes­tic con­flicts (Colom­bia). It co­op­er­ates on drug con­trol func­tions (al­though there is sus­pi­cion that in­di­vid­u­als are im­pli­cated). It guar­an­tees the se­cu­rity of ac­cess routes to the Panama Canal and must deal with U.S. stub­born­ness in main­tain­ing Guan­tá­namo.

The only chal­lenge and risk posed by Cuba for the United States is its own in­sta­bil­ity, caused by eco­nomic de­te­ri­o­ra­tion that may af­fect the political fab­ric and pro­voke in­ter­nal con­flicts, which (at the mo­ment) only its own armed forces and se­cu­rity agen­cies can con­tain. Se­cu­rity agen­cies in Wash­ing­ton and the Pen­tagon are aware that the United States is al­ready suf­fi­ciently pre­oc­cu­pied with more ex­plo­sive sce­nar­ios in other parts of the world (Middle East, Asia). There­fore for the White House, who­ever its oc­cu­pant may be, the pri­or­ity is to en­joy a cer­tain amount of sta­bil­ity south of Key West. Cuban Pres­i­dent Raúl Cas­tro has no doubt taken note.

Ac­cord­ing to this logic, a num­ber of op­er­a­tions are whit­tling away the force of the em­bargo. There has been a tremen­dous in­crease in vis­its to Cuba by U.S. cit­i­zens fit­ting into the au­tho­rized cat­e­gories (stud­ies, religious or­ga­ni­za­tions, aid of var­i­ous kinds) and by thou­sands of Cubans by birth who have the cu­ri­ous priv­i­lege of vis­it­ing their fam­i­lies. The im­pact of en­try to the U.S. of Cubans with visas must also be taken into ac­count: a min­i­mum of 20,000 a year was au­tho­rized by Clin­ton to stop the boatlift in 1994. In ad­di­tion to th­ese ar­rivals is the sys­tem­atic trickle of im­mi­grants reach­ing U.S. ter­ri­tory through third coun­tries in the Cen­tral Amer­i­can cor­ri­dor.

This com­plex panorama is part of the sce­nario of Obama’s trip to Cuba, and the Cuban govern­ment is well aware of it. It will be part of the legacy of the tran­si­tion, what­ever shape it takes.

Joaquín Roy is a Jean Mon­net pro­fes­sor and di­rec­tor of the Euro­pean Union Cen­tre of the Univer­sity of Mi­ami.

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama will visit Cuba in March.

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