Don’t Be Misled by the Media, Cuba Isn’t Changing

After the nominal change in Cuba’s leadership, the New York Times managed to come out with the most New York Times headline ever: “More Black Officials in Power in Cuba as Leadership Changes.” The Los Angeles Times demanded that as Castro era “ends” in Cuba, so should the U.S. embargo. NPR followed hopefully, and Buzzfeed provided a romanticized photo spread.

Reading such affectionate and hopeful portrayals might make one want to believe that Cuba really is currently undergoing a transformation that will define its future. I hate to shatter that optimism, but Cuba isn’t changing, and American policymakers and media really shouldn’t be so naïve and optimistic about it.

After a 12-year run, Raul Castro, brother of Fidel stepped down as the president of the Cuban Council of State and Council of Ministers. Miguel Diaz Canel, Castro’s former bodyguard and minister of state will now rule instead of Raul Castro, as he moves back to his former position out of the limelight. Raul Castro was always uncomfortable in the limelight, and it was inevitable that his failing health would push him back to his former position. Nevertheless, Raul remains the head of the Cuban military, as well as of the Communist party—the two biggest institutions of the state. Put simply, de facto power remains in the hand of the Castro family.

Raul’s son heads the armed forces and domestic intelligence, as a colonel in the interior ministry. And while Raul Castro is often portrayed as a Cuban Deng Xiaoping, for allegedly opening up the Cuban economy, and pursuing a détente with the United States, in reality, this was mere window dressing. There was no “opening”; the Cuban economy remains a rut, Cuba remains a police state, with deep ties with quasi-dictatorships like Venezuela, and the Castros used a gullible and idealistic Obama as a photo opportunity.

Diaz Canel is supposed to carry on the same policies. The new leader is known, apparently, for his simple tastes and is likely to continue the alleged opening up of Cuban markets in accord with “Raulista” economic reforms. These market-oriented policies are expected, as well as more structural reforms that will appeal to foreign investment. But don’t be fooled. Since 1959, the Cuban economy has never undergone major changes. Diaz Canel, though himself an economic liberal who, in recent years has championed internet and LGBT rights, within hours of his nomination,  said that there’s no capitalist restoration in Cuba, and the one-party state will continue. His first meeting was with Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.

Cuba remains in heavy debt. The geopolitical situation that led to the Cuban revolution has changed over the years,  but Cuba, due to its geographical position, is pivotal to great power relations. Cuba’s major financial backers were the Soviet Union, and after that Venezuela. The Soviets are long gone, and Venezuela is now on the verge of collapse. So now what?

With Obama’s presidency, the major geopolitical confrontation seemed to be thawing. And it should come as no surprise that those who are voicing skepticism over Trump and North Korea, cheered when Obama announced his surprise opening up of the Cuban market, and discontinued the practice of giving political sanctuary to every Cuban who washed up on American shores.

Obama’s policy was, needless to mention, a disaster. The Castro regime benefited from increased investment, as well as heavy tourism while continuing with their program of oppression, and maintaining a police state. Added to that, American diplomats posted in Cuba started to suffer from a mysterious sickness, attributed to the Cuban government.

But more importantly, Cuba has an uncanny knack for siding with America’s adversaries. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, also called Diaz Canel, showing his willingness to take the opportunity of the Cuban market opening up and looking to renew the Cuban-Russian ties, now that confrontation with the United States is heating up. As late as in 2017, Russia was considering reopening its former military base in Havana. In the future, this might take geopolitical color, as the United States and Russia are increasingly hostile.

Cuba has also recently opened up to China. In August 2017, Cuba and China signed five cooperation and legal agreements, and China provided major humanitarian support after Hurricane Irma, including relief materials like tents, generators, mattresses, blankets, water, and lighting. China remains one of Cuba’s biggest trading partners with bilateral trade reaching around $2.5 billion, and the Chinese Navy recently visited Cuba looking for future cooperation (arguably against Uncle Sam). The idea that market can solve geopolitical problems is embedded in the liberal worldview of “liberal peace theory,” wherein more trade inevitably means less geopolitical competition. That is historically wrong. Britain and Germany were each other’s biggest trading partners immediately prior to World War I. Over the years trade didn’t dampen Russian and Chinese geopolitical competition with the United States and it is highly unlikely to do so with Cuba. Cuba is and remains a sore spot on America’s southern border, and President Trump and his administration shouldn’t harbor any false hopes, nor should the American public be misled by the liberal media.

Photo credit:  STR/AFP/Getty Images

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About Sumantra Maitra

Sumantra Maitra is a doctoral researcher at the University of Nottingham, and a member of Centre for Conflict, Security, and Terrorism. He is also a regular analyst for Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi, and a regular essayist for various publications, including The National Interest, The Federalist, and Quillette Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @MrMaitra.