Desmond Boylan / AP

Our plan in Havana

Normalization of US-Cuban relations requires a normalization of US conduct

December 20, 2014 2:00AM ET

For an island nation of only 11 million people, Cuba has a continued knack for landing in the media spotlight. First there was last week’s Associated Press revelation about covert U.S. efforts to co-opt the Cuban hip-hop scene as a means of promoting regime change. And now Washington has surprisingly announced it’s restoring ties with the country, after more than 50 years.

As part of the sudden reversal of policy, the U.S. released three alleged Cuban spies, who were arrested in the United States while investigating Cuban exile groups accused of terrorism. U.S. intelligence has its own history in Cuba, to say the least. By 2006, the Central Intelligence Agency had mulled 638 assassination schemes against former Cuban President Fidel Castro, ranging from a simple exploding cigar to strapping a mollusk with explosives to catch him while scuba diving.

But times have apparently changed, and as part of the thaw with the United States, Cuba has released an American prisoner of five years, Alan Gross, whose preincarceration activities on the island are the subject of a recent Newsweek piece by former Washington Post deputy foreign editor Peter Eisner.

Gross, writes Eisner, was part of an intelligence operation run by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) that involved the “illegal transmission of funds to front companies that had spent millions of dollars to subvert Cuba, covert action in Cuba and third countries and the illegal licensing and export of sensitive telecommunications material.”

USAID was incidentally also the force behind the United States’ attempted hip-hop revolution. So when the White House says, as it did in its official press release on Wednesday, that the U.S. “is taking historic steps to chart a new course in our relations with Cuba,” does this mean putting a stop to subversion attempts?

A foot in the door

The communiqué states that U.S. policy vis-à-vis Cuba, although “rooted in the best of intentions … has had little effect” over the past 50-odd years, “constrain[ing] our ability to influence outcomes throughout the Western Hemisphere and impair[ing] the use of the full range of tools available to the United States to promote positive change in Cuba.”

So much for those well-intentioned American terrorist attacks against the island, not to mention the ongoing economic embargo that amounts to collective punishment of a population for something that is not even a crime — having a noncapitalist economic system. The fact that Washington equates an effective Cuba policy with enhanced hemispheric domination indicates that what is being touted as a historic diplomatic breakthrough constitutes a change in means but not ends.

The key components of the new approach include “promoting the growth of entrepreneurship and the private sector” in Cuba, encouraging private property ownership, facilitating financial transactions between the two countries, establishing commercial telecommunications and Internet infrastructure and services on the island and selling “certain consumer communications devices” to the Cubans. A host of other U.S. exports are also mentioned, as is the re-establishment of the American Embassy in Havana.

While some observers have chosen to cast the new deal as a victory for the Cuban Revolution, the BBC News hints at other factors at play: “In Cuba, limited economic reforms carried out by [President] Raúl Castro have begun to relax the tight grip of the state and pique the interest of American business.”

The normalization of US-Cuban relations promised by the White House is complicated by the fact that Guantánamo Bay is illegally operated on Cuban territory.

Premature ecstasy over a perceived triumph of justice thus ignores the possibility that the U.S. has simply determined it’s easier to cajole Cuba into the neoliberal fold with a foot in the door. It’s safe to speculate that a portion of American business is salivating at the prospect of a Berlin Wall moment or a return of the prerevolutionary golden age of corporate-friendly dictatorship.

There is also the Cuban point of view to consider. In his address to the nation on Wednesday, Castro stressed that re-establishing ties with the U.S. “doesn’t mean that the main issue has been resolved”: the embargo, which is written into U.S. law and can’t be lifted by presidential whim.

He also said, “We need to learn the art of coexistence, in a civilized manner, with [respect for] our differences.”

While the U.S. is willing to put up with some differences, ones that impede the flow of capital won’t be received well.

The freedom makeover

Since crass discussion of business interests isn’t the best way to win public support, the U.S. has euphemized its financial ambitions in Cuba into a desire for freedom for the Cuban people.

The White House press release specifies that the country will continue to fund its “democracy programming in Cuba to provide humanitarian assistance [and] promote human rights and fundamental freedoms.” These efforts, it says, are “aimed at promoting the independence of the Cuban people so they do not need to rely on the Cuban state.”

To be sure, nothing spells independence like the encroachments of a superpower in the domestic policies of a small nation. And why rely on the state when all it offers is universal access to food, shelter, health care and education?

Meanwhile, the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations promised by the White House is complicated by the fact that Guantánamo Bay — home to the infamous U.S. detention camp — is illegally operated on Cuban territory leased by the U.S. under bogus claims established after the Spanish-American War.

The normalization does, however, magnanimously provide for a review of Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, although no review is deemed necessary for U.S. drone strikes on civilians or sponsorship of anti-Cuban terrorists.

So while the current hysteria of the anti-Castro camp in Florida might lend credence to the idea that the U.S.-Cuba détente constitutes an extreme departure from business as usual, it’s more of an extreme makeover — the foundations of which remain pretty ugly.

Belén Fernández is the author of “The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work,” published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin magazine.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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