Tuesday, January 12, 2010

On the Authority of Fidel Castro in Cuba--A Consequentialist View From the United States

The utter failure of the materialization of a thaw in relations between Cuba and the United States has been one of the great disappointments in U.S.-Cuba relations in the aftermath of the election of the current President of the United States.  Analysts in the United States tend to place the blame on the internal politics of Cuba, and specifically the state of relations between Fidel and Raúl Castro.  A good indication of American thinking on this score can be gleaned from the Latell Report produced by  Brian Lattell. A recent essay written by Dr. Lattell, entitled Fidel Redux, provides a glimpse at the way elements of American commentators have analyzed the failure.   

Offstage for almost three and a half years --infirm, debilitated, and mostly confined to convalescent quarters-- Fidel Castro nonetheless reasserted himself in 2009 as the dominant force in the Cuban leadership. Now beginning his fifty-second year in power –he never surrendered the overarching responsibility as First Secretary of the Communist Party-- his renewed pre-eminence is proving to be calamitous for Cuba.
      By eclipsing brother Raul, Cuba’s titular president, and the many technocrats Raul elevated last year throughout the bureaucracy, Cuba’s intransigent old lion is likely provoking serious tensions in the leadership. His actions have undermined Raul’s legitimacy and caused lines of authority to blur, while confounding and, no doubt, demoralizing many in the nomenclatura who had hoped for significant policy changes.
      Officials have watched helplessly as Raul’s signature initiatives for promoting economic growth, engaging Cuba’s younger generations, and consulting with the populace about the country’s grave problems all appear to have been scuttled by his brother. As so often in the past, the Castros’ priorities are manifestly in conflict.
      In March Fidel took the public lead in purging two prominent younger leaders. Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque and Vice President Carlos Lage were denounced in the same kind of scathing language that has always characterized Fidel’s style of leadership. In one of his published commentaries he wrote that they had disgracefully succored “the sweet nectar of power.” They had also attracted too much attention abroad as possible successors to the Castro brothers. Lage had often been described as Cuba’s potential Gorbachev, the ambitious “third man” in the leadership.
      Fidel’s more assertive role was visible in the large volume of commentaries –he calls them “reflections”-- published over his name last year. There were 111 of them, a good deal more than during the two preceding years. Seventy were issued between January and May, the period of his most intense re-engagement, and a time when reports indicated that his health had considerably improved. He was reliably said to be strolling in the vicinity of his family compound, even striking up conversations with people he encountered along the way.
      Virtually everything Fidel wrote in last year’s reflections was devoted to favorite international subjects. There was much about his allies and acolytes Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales and about events in Honduras he deplored, after President Zelaya was removed from office.
      He revealed that he has often been in direct communication with Cuban diplomats in Latin America and reportedly managed Cuba’s policy responses to regional developments last spring and summer. He ranted often about global warming and the Copenhagen conference, blaming the United States for the limited progress there without mentioning China’s obstructionist role.
      On April 21 he castigated and humiliated his brother for loose talk at a meeting in Venezuela when –seemingly in an inebriated state— Raul expressed willingness to discuss almost everything with the Obama administration. He specifically included human rights, political prisoners, and freedom of the press in Cuba as issues open to negotiation. It was an extraordinary blunder, bordering on revolutionary blasphemy, that departed from fifty years of official dogma.
      For Fidel that may have been the last straw. A reflection soon appeared in the Cuban media insisting that Raul had been misunderstood. Fidel wrote that “When the President of Cuba said he was ready to discuss any topic with the US President, he meant he was not afraid of addressing any issue. That shows his courage and confidence in the principles of the Revolution.” It was necessary to emphasize again that the ideological and political workings of the Cuban state would never be subject to negotiations with Washington.
      Fidel’s expanded authority, indeed his newly invigorated hubris, has also been evident in the current wave of repression that is the most brutal since the sweeping crackdown in 2003. Violence against dissidents, human rights activists, and the country’s most renowned blogger are all more characteristic of Fidel’s classic style of governing than of the somewhat more tolerant approach Raul had followed since he first succeeded his brother in July 2006.
      The arrest of an American citizen in early December and other reprisals by the regime against visitors from the United States representing religious organizations are clearly intended to ratchet up bilateral tensions. So far, however, the expected anti-American propaganda barrage expected of Fidel has not occurred, but a more subtle criticism of President Obama is taking place.
      And finally, the promotion of veteran revolutionary and two-time former Minister of Interior Ramiro Valdes to one of several vice presidencies of the nominally governing Council of State signals the complete rehabilitation of a man remembered as one Cuba’s toughest and most feared hardliners. Fidel Redux, supra.

This analysis is suggests, in very general ways, the thinking of the Americans and helps explain the changing attitudes of the Obama Administration from something that might have been considered eagerness for change to a reversion to a more passive stance grounded in a "business as usual" position  on both sides.  A sense of that business as usual mentality was well in evidence in Carlos M. Gutierrez, Remarks to the Heritage Foundation, Cuba at the Crossroads Series, Washington, D.C., Dec. 16, 2008 (Mr. Gutierrez was U.S. Secretary of Commerce at the time).

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing from the perspective of either state.  For Cuba, negotiating an end to the embargo/blockade is politically unpalatable.  Moreover, it is not clear that the end of the embargo/blockade would bring benefits greater than its political costs.  For Cuba the risks of the end of isolation are great and include a loss of tight control over economy and a potential loss of control of population.  And indeed, the isolation is to some extent political rather than economic.  Remittances to Cuba from the exile community are not insignificant as a source of hard currency.  Sergio Díaz-Briquets, Remittances to Cuba:  An Update, Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, Proceedings, Vol. 18 (2008). The United States remains a significant trading partner to Cuba.  It posted almost $500 million in sales to Cuba in 2009 and more than $700 million in 2008.  U.S. Census Bureau, Foreign Trade Statistics.  To some extent, that trade is limited not merely by politics but also by the need for most transactions with Cuba to be essentially cash based.  That "cash and carry" regime requirement is to some extent the product of necessity.  Cuba acquired a reputation for failing to pay its debts.  That made debt financing difficult, except by Cuba's significant political partners--Venezuela and China.  American indifference could be as effective a way to avoid the worst effects of an embargo/blockade as movement toward more formal elemination.  For the Americans, indifference, mostly in the form of very lax enforcement of the provisions of the embargo provide a low political cost method of easing the realities of an embargo without having to pay a political price at a time when internal American politics has again pushed issues of Cuba to the back burner.  And fears of augmented Cuban influence in the region were tested and proven somewhat overstated in the context of the Honduran constitutional crisis.  The failure of the Cuba-Venezuela alliance, even with the help of Brazil, to undo the effects of the removal of Mr. Zelaya, suggested the real limits of Cuban power even in the region.  The measured attacks against President Obama by Cuba suggests a desire to maintain both tension and status quo, a situation not lost on the Americans.

All of that is interesting enough.  But more interesting still are the rule of law assumptions implicit in the analysis.   The suggestion, from the American side is that Cuba is not only a failed rule of law state, but a failed Marxist-Leninist rule of law state.  The assertion, made quite plainly, is that the Marxism of the Castro brothers is meant to disguise a personal dictatorship, that the cult of personality has undone the role of the Communist Party as the vanguard of the Cuban Revolution.  Recent actions in Cuba have tended to feed that perception abroad.  See Larry Catá Backer, Postponing the Cuban Communist Party Congress, Law at the End of the Day, Aug. 6, 2009.  But this is exaggerated to some extent.  Fidel Castro remains first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party, but Party organization is less institutionalized than in more mature regimes.  And that has significant repercussions. within the context of relationships framed by international law.  It, for example, played a role in the sting attached to the conditions imposed on Cuban re-entry into the OAS.  "Although the OAS lifted Cuba's suspension Wednesday, Latin American leaders did not automatically welcome the nation back. Instead, the organization set up a mechanism by which Cuba could rejoin. Much of the dialogue would have centered on human rights.Cuba Rejects OAS Membership, Officials Say, CNN, June 4, 2009.  Unable to argue coherently from either the logic of internal organization or from theories of rights, within the formalist framework of international law, Cuba sought refuge in rhetoric and a functionalist analysis. 
Did any Latin American or Caribbean die because of its own fault? Not a single one of them did!  Those are slanders, fabricated by the Castroist-Communist, which have emanated from Cuba, a country expelled from the OAS because its government proclaimed Marxism-Leninism in a country where there was never an election, where no one is entitled to vote or being elected, which lives under the rule of a tyranny that has blatantly confronted a country so weak, defenseless and poor as the United States for half a century.  If Cuba does not rectify its position, the selfless and noble government of the United States will not sell a single aspirin to Cuba.  The OAS is a guarantee of the democratic rights of the long-suffering Cuban people. Fidel Castro Ruz, Feverish Dreams, Reflections of Comrade Fidel, April 20, 2009 (¿Murió un solo latinoamericano o caribeño por culpa suya? ¡Ni uno solo! Son calumnias del Castro-Comunismo emanadas de Cuba, país expulsado de la OEA, porque su gobierno proclamó el Marxismo-Leninismo, un país donde nunca hubo una elección, nadie vota ni es elegido, reina allí una tiranía que ha tenido el descaro de enfrentar a un país tan débil, indefenso y pobre como Estados Unidos durante medio siglo. Si no rectifica, el Gobierno desinteresado y noble de ese país, no le venderá a Cuba ni una aspirina. La OEA es garantía para el sufrido pueblo cubano de sus derechos democráticos.  Id.,)
Yet there is perfect balance here.  The American right has as little respect for the OAS.
Heather Berkman, a Latin America analyst with the Eurasia Group consulting firm, saw the vote as "a largely symbolic gesture that will have little impact in the short term either on improving democracy and human rights on the island, or on increasing the likelihood that the U.S. will lift the embargo of the island."
And the vote could have a backlash, she said.
"There will be a strong reaction among certain members of U.S. Congress who are passionately opposed to improving U.S.-Cuba relations while the Castros remain in power," Berkman said.
That reaction was quick to come Wednesday.
"Today we witnessed an example of the Obama administration's absolute diplomatic incompetence and its unrestricted appeasement of the enemies of the United States," Cuban-American U.S. Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Florida, and Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Florida, said in a joint statement. "The OAS is a putrid embarrassment."
Other Cuban-American members of Congress also released statements criticizing the vote.  Arthur Brice, OAS Lifts 47 Year Suspension of Cuba, CNN, June 3, 2009.

This puts Cuba in a bit of a conundrum.  It had been able, quite successfully for a while, to persuade many that the Honduran removal of President Zelaya in June, 2009, constituted a violation of both the Honduran Constitution and the OAS Charter. See, Doug Cassel, Honduras: Coup d’Etat in Constitutional Clothing?, American Society of International Law ASIL Insight 13(9) July 29, 2009, available http://www.asil.org/insights090729.cfm. Yet Cuba finds application of the same focus to it uncomfortable.  "Cuba is the Americas' only one-party communist regime, and a harsh OAS critic. Though political parties other than the Cuban Communist Party are outlawed in Cuba, Havana maintains Cuba is a democracy, and far less corrupt than other multiparty governments." Cuba Return to OAS Not Automatic:  Clinton, June 3, 2009.  The consequences, for both Cuban and American policy are clear enough.  The current situation in Cuba, with formal and functional government in a dynamic state, ensures that any change in the relationship with the United States is unlikley. 

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