Monday, March 14, 2016

Obama in Cuba: why and what to expect

President Obama's visit to Cuba between 20-22 March, the first in almost 90 years, will probably bring a lot of hopes and possible deals for US companies, but will not change too much the massive human rights violations on the island. After decades of economic and political isolation, Cuba is progressivelly opening to businesses, but the high number of arrests among dissidents in the last weeks - around 2,555 in the first months of the year according to local and international human rights NGOs - shows that there is a very long way till the country will achieve democratic standards, if ever.
Obama is accompanied by a massive delegation of business people, among which representatives of AT&T, Xerox, Marriott and Starwood hotel chains, as well as bi-partisan senators. In the next months it is expected that US airlines will start commercial flights to Cuba. A full lifting of the embargo is not possible too soon, given the strong opposition of the Republican-dominated Congress, many of them strongly opposing this visit. Over the years, the Congress created exceptions to embargo, allowing, among others, US companies to sell construction materials, or agricultural and telecommunications equipment. White Houe is considering revising various regulations to allow American dollars to be used in transactions with Cuba and give green light to Americans to travel individually in Cuba. As for now, after decades long when visiting the Caribbean island was definitely forbidden, American can visit only part of groups. 
Compared with Nixon's visit to China - except that Obama does not have a smart help as Kissinger - the coming agenda includes meeting with Raul Castro, the brother of the Fidel who used to throw diatribes against the US, a possible attendance of a US-Cuba baseball game - Major League Baseball is part of the delegation too looking for deals for getting easily Cuban players -, a public speech at the University of Havana and a meeting with dissidents, most probably carefully chosen by the authorities. What will be avoided at any price will be a photo opp with Fidel, but do not forget that Raul was comrade in arms with his brother and part of the same system. 
US consulting companies warn that given the difficult legal and economic environment in Cuba, it will be quite complicated for American firms to operate in the communist country, but probably there was little choice left to the US given the high interest of countries like France, Japan and Russia to start serious businesses with Havana government. If we think about the good Cold War relations between Havana and Moscow, it is hard to believe that Russians ever left, with many elites well trained in the Soviet institutions.
The official publication Granma, who over the years made a hobby from publishing many pages anti-American propaganda announced in one of its last issues that Cuba will not cede 'one inch' in its 'unconditional commitment to its revolutionary and anti-imperialist principles'. On the other side, Obama also announced in December, during a Yahoo interview, that he will not visit the island if the human rights conditions will not improve. It is hard to say now who won, but democracy and human rights did not for now it seems. 
The warming up of the relations started in September 2014, when Castro and Obama met during the UN General Assembly. According to the diplomatic practices, an official visit of Raul Castro to Washington may follow, but it is hard to say if it will happen during the mandate of the current president. 
To be continued...

No comments: