cuba 1.jpgCuban Reset Culture 

17D: Sequences and Consequences, Part III

This article was originally published by Temas on its blog Catalejo.

Click the associated links to find parts I and II in this series.

With the aim of furthering our understanding of the United States-Cuba relationship, Temas submitted a brief questionnaire to a select group of researchers in both countries. The questionnaire sought to explain the challenges of 17D, the day diplomatic relations were restored, and its possible sequences in the short- and the mid-term. The publication of this series was initiated on Catalejo, Temas’ blog, the eve of the 54th anniversary of the severing of diplomatic relations. Below, we repost a few of the responses.

TEMAS: Are the societies and the political cultures on both sides ready for this encounter? What are their comparative advantages? What are their main deficits?

Jesús Arboleya: It is not an easy question to answer because many issues that are difficult to summarize in a few words are at stake. In the cultural sphere, we are talking about a relationship that precedes even the existence of both nations, and which has endured despite all the conflicts. Truly, Cuba has never had a “normal” relationship with the United States. American culture is undoubtedly attractive for Cuban society and on occasions this constitutes a challenge to the socialist ideology. This is the wager of those who consider mutual contacts as factor of domestic destabilization. But this experience is likewise an antidote that reduces its most negative effects, particularly those that concern the defense of our sovereignty and independence. When they had all the power to impose their values they were unable to prevent a socialist revolution. Thus, I do not see objective reasons to presume that now we will be unable to counter these influences, particularly if we are capable of designing policies as intelligent as those which allowed us to survive over half a century of the worst aggressions.

Pedro Monreal: The social transformations are the result of collective action. Despite the opinion of experts, or the disproportionate perceptions that the economic elites and professional politicians may have of themselves, societies are not just always ready for social change, but it is them who constantly engender change. In fact, the new bilateral process that has been emerging is the result of the resistance of the Cuban people. The traditional policy of hostility of the U.S. government towards Cuba became obsolete precisely because the collective action of the Cuban society so determined it.

The new bilateral setting presents novel challenges that must similarly be settled through collective action. I believe that in the realm of political culture this will not result in major problems for the American society, which has clearly demonstrated its capacity for mutation and innovation. By this I do not mean that political problems will not arise, but that is a different matter. I simply point out that eventual political difficulties that may emerge in the U.S. in advancing a new bilateral relation will not be due to problems strictly in the nature of its political culture, understood to be a political system expressed in beliefs and values. I am excluding in this brief comment the peculiar case of the political culture of South Florida, which obviously requires a separate analysis.

In the case of Cuba the problem seems more interesting and complicated insofar as it involves a process that will insert itself in a political culture that has been changing for more substantive reasons, mainly related to the “structural” and “management” modifications brought about by a process of restructuring whose depth is sometimes not sufficiently recognized.

In today’s Cuban society, where the collective “ethos” is bruised —in the real, not discursive realm— and where forms and mechanisms of inequality are being rapidly established as part of the “new normal” (regardless of the declared political intentions), the political adoption of ideas and values embraces processes of renovation, frustration, negation, reaction, tension and imitation, sometimes sequential, sometimes simultaneous.

From this perspective, the issue is perhaps not so much to assume Cuba’s political culture as a given context for the change in Cuba-US bilateral relations but to consider eventual changes in that political culture, “influenced” or “interfered”, possibly “catalyzed” by the modification of the bilateral relations. The outcomes of these processes are difficult to predict, except for the fact that they will essentially be resolved in the realm of Cuba’s domestic politics.

The so-called “normalization” of relations between Cuba and the U.S. will certainly include potentially positive aspects for Cuban society (e.g., export and employment growth, and an eventual “peace dividend”), but will also contain latent aspects that would not be considered “normal” by the majority of the Cuban population (e.g., and eventual “Tijuanization” of the Cuban labor market).

Entrusting the regulation of the process of “normalization” to market forces (or to criteria related with “efficiency” and “economic rationality”) could prove disastrous for Cuban society. In this realm, Cuba’s comparative advantage is minimal versus a “partner” like the U.S. There should be no illusions in this matter. But there is a more significant reason for challenging the market as possible arbiter in the “normalization” process. The path to national welfare in the new context of relations with the U.S. should be determined by the people of Cuba in accordance with their own values and interests and not as a result of the “invisible hand” of the market. The “normalization”, however it is understood, should be a process managed by politics.

The possibility of success in that endeavor will depend not primarily on the Cuban state but on the domestic political matrix in which it exists and to which it must respond. Once again, it is a matter of the capacity for collective popular action that could exist to achieve certain goals that reflect the type of society to which it aspires.

The best guarantee that the reencounter of Cuban society with the most booming model of capitalist society that ever existed will not lead toward a “normalization” of relations such as existed during the “republican” period of Cuba, nor will it be reproduced on the island the “model” that today characterizes the way in which U.S. capital operates in many Latin American and Caribbean countries, is to rely on a favorable environment that will insure real (as opposed to merely stated) political empowerment of the majority of citizens, in particular, by not allowing inequality to distort the political process.

Jorge I. Domínguez: Rafael Hernández wrote in Temas (2010) and in his English version Debating U.S.-Cuban Relations (2012) that neither Cuba nor the US are ready to face an “adversary” that is not an “enemy.”That challenge is much greater in the case of Cuba, where it is a national issue. In the US, the Cuban issue is a policy topic of lesser importance (compared to Afghanistan, Iraq, Crimea, the lack of economic growth of the European Union and Japan, the complex China-US relationship, etc.) beyond Southern Florida. Signs will appear relatively soon. Will the US Senate, with a Republican majority, confirm the first ambassador designated to represent the US in Havana since Philip Bonsal left? Or will the designation become the victim of the presidential pre-nominations of Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Ted Cruz (R-TX), both of them Cuban-American? Will the Cuban government accept that U.S. firms sell construction materials to build private residences and sell products directly to the cuentapropistas (the new small Cuban private entrepreneurs), without the mediation of a state-owned enterprise? And, assuming that the Cuban government would be ready to allow it, how will this take place? Will the Cuban government, for instance, authorize cooperatives to import?

Not all is possible, but there are already things that are possible today and were not yesterday. Dominguez’ and Hernandez’ books had different trajectories. The one that appeared in 1989 was only published in English and outside Cuba, though not for lack of effort to also publish it in Spanish and in Cuba. Its successor was published in both languages and countries. And the first fast and effective publication was the one printed in Cuba.



Temas is a Cuban magazine that seeks to provide a space for critical reflection and debate regarding cultural and social thinking in contemporary Cuba.  

Jesús Arboleya is Professor at the Instituto Superior de Relaciones Internacionales (ISRI) and Universidad de La Habana.

Pedro Monreal is an Economist and member of the Temas Editorial Board. 

Jorge I. Domínguez is Professor at Harvard University.

[Photos courtesy of Elvert Barnes]

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