[Speech delivered to participants on the 2015 Rock Around the Blockade Cuba Vive! brigade in preparation for study in Cuba. Details on the brigade can be found here.]
The 17 December, 2014 was a strange day for Communists. Suddenly, the Cuban 5 were free. There was “a thaw” in US-Cuban relations. 18 months of secret talks had come to fruition. What was happening?
In broad terms: a historic victory for Cuban Socialism. Whilst I expect comrades are already aware of the specifics, we need to be completely accurate about this. Helen Yaffe outlines the announcements in 3 bullets points.
- The restoration of diplomatic relations. A US embassy is to be re-established in Havana. High-ranking officials from the US visited Cuba in January, holding talks between the 21 & 22.
- The US will consider removing Cuba from its list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.
- Obama stated ‘we are taking steps to increase travel, commerce and the flow of information to and from Cuba.’
However, we need to understand exactly what Obama has decided. Comrades should all have been provided with a set of handouts. ‘Handout 1.’ details the change in US policy toward Cuba. I have also provided bullet-points elaborating on the background of changes which I felt may seem obtuse.
Rather than repeat the entire list, I thought that it might be best to approach this by posing a question: what does this mean? The answer to this question is 2-fold.
1stly, there are specific questions: the 1s we must ask whilst we’re in Cuba. In giving this introduction, I see it as my purpose to highlight some of these questions.
We know, from the experience of the Special Period, that the solution to certain problems leads to new contradictions. Following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the 4th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in October 1991 produced an 18-point Resolution on the economy. This included the pledge to ‘develop tourism’. The influx of USD from tourism, alongside remittances led to an increasing trade of USD on the black market &, eventually, to the introduction of the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), valued at the same level as the USD, in 1993. The contradiction between these 2 currencies & the need for monetary unification is a factor still with us today.
Without slipping into speculation, the new changes in US policy toward Cuba require us to begin to draw out similar questions. Take, for example, the increase in allowed remittances.
We need to be asking fundamental questions. Whilst the potential for an increased influx of USD could aid Cuba in its need for hard currency, it could equally lead to new contradictions & new avenues for assault by US Imperialism. This is the kind of specific question I would hope to draw out in discussion. It is also worth noting that the PCC will be holding its 7th Congress in April, 2016. The 6th Congress of the PCC was held on the 16-18 April, 2011. This produced the Resolution on the Guidelines of the Economic and Social Policy of the Party and the Revolution, policies that are guiding Cuban Socialism to date.
2ndly, we need to consider what this means in an international & historical political context. In order to do so we must begin by briefly considering both what Obama cannot decide & what he could decide, but won’t.
An interview given on Cuban TV by Josefina Vidal, Director General for the United States at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Relations, illustrates this question.
I would recommend that comrades read the interview for a more extensive list of Obama’s abilities in regards to US policy towards Cuba. What I intend to underscore relates to something which comrades should be familiar with already: the blockade.
‘The blockade has not ended’, Vidal reasserts. She explains rather succinctly that ‘[in] 1996 the Helms-Burton law was approved, which codified the blockade as law’ & that this means that only ‘the United States Congress [has] the authority to declare an end to the policy.’ Vidal continues, explaining that,
‘[What] has happened is that the President of the United States, making use of his executive prerogatives […] announced a series of measures modifying the implementation of some aspects of the blockade’; ‘we [say] that the measures recently announced by the President were positive […] but are still limited to a small number of spheres […] he has [not] exhausted all of his prerogatives.’
Obama has not made use of all of his powers. The question we must now answer is ‘what is the
extent of his powers? Vidal, again, is very clear: ‘The President of the United States has options, I would say unlimited, to gut the blockade of its fundamental content.’
For example, Obama is not able to grant Cuba the ability to trade with a branch of a US company operating in another country to trade with Cuba. This is contained in the 1992 Torricelli Law (Vidal). He could, however, allow that same company – if it were operating in the US – to do business with Cuba, both import & export. He has not allowed this.
Another example: Obama cannot allow agricultural products to be traded with Cuba on credit. He could allow non-agricultural products to be traded with Cuba on credit (Vidal). He has not done this. This list runs on.
In her latest FRFI article, Yaffe uses the example of the Cuban Adjustment Act to undermine the notion that the steps towards establishing diplomatic ties represent “normalisation”. The Cuban Adjustment Act grants US residency to any Cuban who enters the US, regardless of how they arrived. That Obama has not taken all of the steps he could toward gutting ‘the blockade of its fundamental content’ can be used to illustrate a similar point. The steps that Obama has taken are not in support of Cuba’s right to self-determination, or in support of Cuban Socialism. As Raul Castro put it on 28 January, ‘[the] normalisation of bilateral relations […] will not be possible as long as the blockade exists’.
If this is so, it poses a further question: why are the present developments so significant? The Obama administration has loosened the blockade of Cuba in the past. In 2009 restrictions on family remittances were lifted; in 2011, the Obama administration relaxed certain travel restrictions. At an abstract level, 1 could perceive this as part of a trend.
The key difference is in the decision to re-establish diplomatic ties. This is an explicit acknowledgement of US policy’s failure to undermine Cuban Socialism. As Obama puts it: ‘We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests’.The Revolution has not been broken; the isolation cast over Cuba by US Imperialism has not worked. The new changes, therefore, represent a shift in the strategy of US Imperialism.
Key to this strategy are the economic policies put forward by Obama. All but 2 are related to the liquidity of commodities & USD as exchanged between the US & Cuba. Liquidity refers to ‘[the] degree to which an asset or security can be bought or sold in the market without affecting the asset’s price […] Assets that can be easily bought or sold are known as liquid assets’ or the ‘ability to convert an asset to cash quickly.’ By increasing the liquidity of commodities & USD between the 2 countries the US hopes to distort Socialism, reintroducing Capitalist ideas & economics into Cuban society. This is what Obama means when he refers to ‘engagement’ with Cuba. The timing, of course, coincides with the introduction of new economic policies – discussed in Andrew’s introduction – which the bourgeois media has repeatedly hailed as the reintroduction of Capitalism in Cuba.
The same principle of distortion, seduction & perversion could equally be applied by the US’ new founded interest in providing Cuba with technology. It is no secret that the US has, for years, made illegal broadcasts to Cuba in hopes of undermining Marxist ideology, to ludicrous expense. Comrades may also remember the infamous Yoani Sanchez – a blogger acting as a pawn of US Imperialism in Cuba.
The change in the US’ strategy should be very clear. All that remains to be answered is the question “why now?”, when it has been patently obvious that isolation has not broken Cuba for at least a decade.
Well, 1stly, Cuba isn’t as isolated as it used to be. The process unfolding in Venezuela & the establishment of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) in 2004 cannot go ignored. Originally founded as the result of barter trade between Cuba & Venezuela beginning in 2000, ALBA now consists of 11 member states in Latin America. It provides cooperation agreements between governments & demonstrates a startling alternative to the neo-liberal agenda of the OAS. Another alternative is represented by the Community of Latin American & Caribbean States (CELAC), founded in the July of 2011. CELAC is seen as an alternative to the OAS & rejects the domination of US politics over Latin America. Both Cuba & Venezuela play leading roles within CELAC. The US is not represented in either organisation. Couple this with the commitment of several countries to boycott the 2015 Summit of Americas if the US continued to exclude Cuban participation. These days, the US seems more isolated in Latin America than Cuba.
Alongside this, the US has growing fears of international investment in Cuba as a possible contest to its position of global Imperialist hegemony.
The EU is Cuba’s biggest external investor & its 2nd most important trading partner to China. Following the Special Period – specifically from 1996 – EU investment in Cuba has been sufficiently huge. In 2003 EU investment account for over ½ of Cuba’s 400 foreign investment joint ventures & over ½ of tourists visiting Cuba. Trade with Cuba is equally enormous. The EU accounts for over 20% of Cuban trade. In October, 2014, Hugo Swire was the 1st British government minister to visit Cuba in a decade. He went to discuss trade & investments.
The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China & South Africa) New Development Bank, founded in July 2014 following the 6th BRICS Summit is equally worrying for the US. The bank is a direct alternative to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) & the World Bank – therefore, a significant challenge to US & EU Imperialism. The BRICS countries represent 1 5th of the world economy & almost 50% of world GDP growth in the last 10 years. It will begin lending in 2016 & within 5 years will have accumulated $100bn of pooled Capital. Whilst the bank will not begin lending until next year, the countries that make it up have not been idle.
China is Latin America’s 3rd largest trading partner, with a bilateral balance of trade of $261.6bn in 2013 (up 21x since the 2000 rate). China is Cuba’s largest trading partner, accounting for 18% of Cuban imports ($1.11bn) & 30% of Cuban exports ($533m) in 2012. Cuba’s annual bilateral trade with China stands at around $2bn. Last summer, Chinese President Xi Jinping made his 2nd visit to Cuba in less than 4 years. He signed over 29 trade, debt, credit & other agreements. China will continue its imports, is restructuring Cuban debt (estimated at $6bn) & will provide a $120m loan for the construction of a new port & industrial development zone in Santiago de Cuba.
Other BRICS countries have shown equal interest in Cuba. Putin visited Cuba 2 weeks before Jinping & wrote off $32bn of Cuba’s Soviet debt; Russia is exploring Cuban waters for oil & gas. Brazil was a major partner in building the new Mariel Port: roughly 400 Brazilian companies were involved in building the port, generating $802m for the Brazilian construction industry. The project was underwritten by the Brazilian government’s Development Bank by a sum of $682m.
The combination of threats represented by growing Latin American unity against US Imperialism & competing potential Imperialist rivalries can go some way toward explaining the recent developments in US policy toward Cuba, as can the abysmal failure of US Imperialism to undermine Cuban Socialism over decades. What should be clear from both mine & Andrew’s introductions is that the struggle for Cuban Socialism has entered a new phase, 1 with new rules.
 The USD is the most frequently used & widely accepted means of international payment for goods & services. For more on the globally dominant position of the USD see Ping Chew, ‘Why the Dollar Will Remain the Global Currency’, Bloomberg Business (23 April, 2009): http://goo.gl/aYNQ5z, World Trade Organisation, ‘Use of Currencies in International Trade: Any Changes in the Picture?’, Economic Research and Statistics Division (May, 2012): http://goo.gl/Qygfwc & Ana Lucia Gelabert, ‘Can printing dollars stave off US economic crisis?’, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 173 (June/July, 2003): http://goo.gl/a36Nyq.
 Cristina Escobar, ‘The blockade has not ended’, Granma (12 February, 2015): http://goo.gl/5ykhVc. All references to this interview will be given in the main text, as ‘Vidal’. References will only be given when necessary.
 Raul Castro, cited in Yaffe, ‘US opens talks with socialist Cuba’.
 Barrack Obama, cited in Yaffe, ‘US opens talks with socialist Cuba’.
 Helen Yaffe, ‘ALBA: new dawn for Latin America’, 50 Years of Cuban Socialism: achievements of the Cuban Revolution (London: Rock Around the Blockade, 2009), p.35.
 See Yaffe, ‘US opens talks with socialist Cuba’.
 See Yaffe, ‘US opens talks with socialist Cuba’.
 See Yaffe, ‘US opens talks with socialist Cuba’.
Handout 1. Recent US policy changes towards Cuba.
1. A US embassy will be re-established in Havana.
2. Obama has committed the US to a review of Cuba’s definition as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.
3. Travellers from the US under the 12 current categories allowed to visit Cuba will not need to apply for special licenses in order to visit Cuba.
4. Remittance levels will be raised from $500 to $2,000 per quarter. Specific licenses will not be required.
5. Authorised travellers will be able to import up to $400 of Cuban goods. No more than $100 of alcohol & tobacco combined is permitted.
6. US institutions may open accounts with Cuban banks in order to facilitate authorised transactions.
7. US credit & debit cards will be permitted for use by travellers to Cuba.
8. US companies will be able to export phones, computers & internet technology to Cuba.
9. Both Obama & Raul Castro will attend the 2015 Summit of the Americas.
10. US companies could now sell/export building materials & agricultural equipment to private Cuban companies.
 For more information on the background to US policy on travel see Mark P. Sullivan, ‘Cuba: U.S. Restrictions on Travel and Remittances’, Congressional Research Service (19 August, 2014): http://goo.gl/BOvdaW.
 Sullivan, p.20.
 Sam Vincent, ’50 years of US attacks’, 50 Years of Cuban Socialism: achievements of the Cuban Revolution (London: Rock Around the Blockade, 2009), p.10.
Handout 2. 12 categories of travel allowed from the US to Cuba.
- Travellers going to Cuba for family visits;
- Travellers going to Cuba on official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain inter-governmental organizations;
- Journalists travelling to Cuba for specifically journalistic activity;
- Professionals going to Cuba for ‘professional research and professional meetings’ – i.e. academic research or conferences;
- Travellers going to Cuba for educational activities. For example, this would include US students attending the Latin American School of Medicine in Cuba;
- Travellers going to Cuba for religious activities;
- Professionals going to Cuba for public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions;
- Travellers going to Cuba in ‘support for the Cuban people’;
- Charities etc going to Cuba to provide humanitarian aid;
- Professionals travelling to Cuba to perform activities for private foundations & research or educational institutes;
- Travellers going to Cuba export, import or transmit information or information materials;
- People travelling to Cuba to perform ‘certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines.’