Monday, June 19, 2017

Business Recorder Column June 19, 2017

Trump and Cuba Rashed Rahman US President Donald Trump has taken to pandering to the hawkish Cuban exile community in Florida that supported his bid for the presidency. Addressing a meeting of this community in Miami on June 16, 2017 he denounced Cuba’s ‘brutal’ communist regime (throwing in Venezuela for good measure), vowed to restore ‘freedom’ to their homeland, and announced he is cancelling the ‘one-sided’ deal Obama initiated as part of an opening up to Cuba after more than five decades of hostility. He also vowed not to lift the economic sanctions (in fact a total economic embargo) imposed on Cuba soon after Fidel Castro’s revolution triumphed in 1959 until all Cuban political prisoners are freed and free elections held. Trump followed up this foray by issuing a presidential directive to give effect to his declaration. Essentially, the thrust of Trump’s ‘new’ policy is to place restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba, the former in particular having resulted since the US-Cuba rapprochement in 2014 in large numbers of American tourists flooding into Cuba, bringing with them dollars badly needed by the foreign exchange starved Cuban economy. The demand for enhanced accommodation and services for this nascent flood of tourists has engendered small private businesses offering private homes to stay in (the main driver in this being Airbnb) and service providers. Significantly, Trump seems to have bowed to pressures from US businesses and some Republicans to avoid turning the clock back completely. Thus air and sea travel will continue, but with fresh restrictions, including American citizens using services provided by companies controlled by the Cuban military, which have a big stake in the tourism industry. The logic of this measure is ostensibly to not benefit the regime with dollar flows. However, this myopic step is likely to hurt the emerging small private sector in Cuba, which Trump seeks to support in the name of benefits only for the Cuban people. Failing providing a map of which enterprises to deal with, it is obvious that this ‘separation’ of state and private enterprises is practically difficult if not impossible. Trump’s policy will hurt not only enhanced economic engagement with Cuba generally, but its emerging small private sector most of all. Critics of Trump’s reversal of Obama’s policy seek engagement with Cuba since, they argue, 50 plus years of hostility and attempts thereby to overthrow the revolutionary regime have failed. Their overt and covert hope is for such engagement to result in the peaceful transition from the revolutionary regime to a pro-capitalist one. The hawks and doves’ hopes for regime change though are unlikely to be met in the light of President Raul Castro’s clear declaration that the revolution will not bow to pressure or blandishments. For those unfamiliar with the history and trajectory of the Cuban revolution, it would be useful to retrace some of the seminal moments in that journey. Cuba, lying just 90 miles away from Florida, had been since independence from Spain in 1898 a virtual US colony. The US controlled the commanding heights of the Cuban economy and treated its southern island neighbour as a playground for the American rich, including the Mafia. Large tracts of land owned by the local elite (latifundia) showed a cruel contrast between the lives of the rich and the peasants who worked the plantations, the latter mired generation after generation in extreme poverty and misery. Cuba’s seemingly stable status as a colonial outpost of the US was disturbed when Fulgencio Batista mounted a military coup and took power in 1952. A young dynamic lawyer and member of the mainstream Orthodoxo Party, Fidel Castro, decided the time had come for decisive action. On July 23, 1953, he and a band of his comrades mounted an armed assault on the Moncada military garrison in the city of Santiago de Cuba. The assault was beaten back with most of the insurgents killed and a handful, including Fidel, imprisoned. At his trial, Fidel delivered his famous “History will absolve me” speech, which became the clarion call for the Cuban revolution despite his and his compatriots’ exile (including his younger brother Raul Castro). Fidel and his comrades regrouped in exile in Mexico, joined in this period by a significant recruit: Argentinian Ernesto Che Guevara. In 1956, Fidel and this band of revolutionaries, under the banner of the July 23 Movement as it came to be called, mounted an expedition to Cuba on a boat named Granma (this later became the title of the Cuban revolutionary regime’s paper). The expedition was almost wiped out on landing in Cuba by the Baptista regime’s military. A handful, including Fidel, Raul and Che, managed to escape the ambush and set up a guerrilla base in the Sierra Maestre Mountains. From here, the rebels launched a guerrilla war that led to the collapse of the Baptista regime in 1958. The dictator fled to the US. On January 1, 1959, Fidel’s triumphant columns marched into Havana to the cheers and joy of the populace. Fidel’s regime soon fell foul of Washington when US businesses on the island were nationalised, land reform carried out and an increasingly socialist orientation of the new regime became visible. US President Eisenhower responded by imposing an economic embargo on Cuba. The Cuban elite and its supporters fled the island for the US, where John F Kennedy’s administration and CIA trained, equipped and launched an invasion of Cuba with exile mercenaries. This blatant aggression against revolutionary Cuba was decisively defeated at the Bay of Pigs. The US-inspired economic blockade was total, only breached by the then Soviet Union, which came to the rescue of the beleaguered government. The world held its breath when, in 1962, Soviet missiles were deployed in Cuba to ward off another US invasion, leading to a nuclear confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union. A nuclear holocaust was only avoided at the last moment when the Soviet Union’s Premier Nikita Kruschev agreed to withdraw the missiles from Cuba in return for a secret understanding to remove US nuclear missiles deployed in Turkey against the Soviet Union in a quid pro quo. Moscow continued to provide economic and technical support to Havana but could not do enough to overcome the poverty inherited from Cuba’s past, which lingered to devastating effect because of the US’s economic blockade despite the Cuban regime’s efforts to provide relief and a better life to its people. Despite all the difficulties and obstacles, the Fidel Castro-led government provided the Cuban people with a level of education and healthcare that is the envy of the world today. The Cuban armed forces were not only developed to a level of efficiency to give pause for thought to any would be invader, they provided support in far away Africa to the revolutionary national liberation struggles of Ethiopia and Angola, defeating the much vaunted South African army in the latter country. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the US-led imperialists licked their chops at the thought of overcoming the Cuban government, faced as it was with immeasurably greater difficulties in the absence of Soviet support. This was a real test for the Cuban revolution. Whereas many communist countries had either consciously embraced capitalism or at least adjusted their policies to a now almost completely capitalist world, Cuba adhered to its revolutionary √©lan, struggled through the Special Period as it was called, and has kept its revolutionary banner flying even after the illness, retirement and eventual passing away of its charismatic leader, Fidel Castro. Given this brief account of the Cuban revolution and people’s resilience in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, the hopes of the US hawks and doves, separated only by the ways and means chosen to overthrow the Raul Castro government, face the indomitable will of a small Caribbean island people wedded to defending, constructing and maintaining their socialist future.

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