Sunday, January 27, 2019

An American Eclogue on the Cuban Embargo: An Annotated Reflection on Nicholas Kristof "The embargo on Cuba failed. Let’s move on"

"I’m not a Cuba expert, and I don’t know how this country will evolve." (Nicholas Kristof, "The embargo on Cuba failed. Let’s move on" syndicated 24 January 2019 Houston Chronicle Version).

It is the rare member of the influence leader elite has has failed to miss an opportunity to share views about Cuba in general or the Cuban Embargo (or the Blockade depending on one's political leanings and ideological loyalty/blinkers). Nicholas Kristof is not among them.   

Mr. Kristof has just distributed his musings about the Cuban embargo.  There is nothing particularly odd about the short essay.  It reads like decades of similar eclogues, this one tied to his vision of the Arcadia that is oh so near for the Americans and Cubans.  These are usually produced in the flush of a junket to Havana--and are just as usually forgotten.

In normal course I tend to ignore these musings of the thought leader class.  But this one is worth at least a little commentary, if only to better appreciate the fantasies of Mr. Kristof's version of Cuba's spiritual landscape.  

What follows is an annotated version of Mr. Kristof's eclogue. For more read my book: Cuba’s Caribbean Marxism: Essays on Ideology, Government, Society, and Economy in the Post Fidel Castro Era (Little Sir Press, 2018), discussed HERE.

(Pix © Larry Cataá Backer 2017)

Nicholas Kristof, "The embargo on Cuba failed. Let’s move on" syndicated 24 January 2019 Houston Chronicle Version
HAVANA — It has been 60 years since Fidel Castro marched into Havana, so it’s time for both Cuba and the United States to grow up. Let’s let Cuba be a normal country again.
I have always appreciated how the march of time inevitably requires change, if only to commemorate the march of time.  But it is as good a reason as any to trigger exercises in self reflection.  But that is entirely what this ecolgue attempts--an American inner monologue about a bilateral relationship.  And thus we start with the sort of arrogance--that it is for the Americans to decide and affect the terms of ths relationship--that tends to irritate. . . everyone. But it also suggests that beyond the pundit class, the aggregations we have come to understand as the American and Cuban ruling classes must "grow up", that is come to the same conclusions of the kindly Shepard as he looks at his Arcadia from the comfort of hus fabulously comfortable perch above. 

Cuba is neither the demonic tyranny conjured by some conservatives nor the heroic worker paradise romanticized by some on the left. It’s simply a tired little country, no threat to anyone, with impressive health care and education but a repressive police state and a dysfunctional economy. 
It is hard to get sympathy for one's argument when the discursive tactic of choice is high condescension.  And there is irony here--what distinguishes this from the much criticized remark by Mr. Trump  about Sh*thole countries? It is even more deliciously ironic because it was Mr. Kristof himself, just about a year ago who hoped to teach the rest of us a lesson about the "sh*thole country episode  (What We Can Learn From ‘S-Hole Countries’ criticizing"invidious insults aimed at entire continents and of stereotyping people from those continents."). But worse, in Mr. Kristof's world, Cuba, "a tired little country," is incapable of punching well above its weight in international public organizations, is incapable of projecting social power (for example through its medical programs) abroad, and is incapable of forging sometimes irritatingly potent regional blocs.  There may well be a lot of people who are irritated at that government and (as Mr. Kristof is himself an example) of our government. But to suggest a lack of threat (threat to whom? and how?--those are the more interesting questions ignored) is to expose a lack of thought.

Driving in from the airport, I saw billboards denouncing the American economic embargo as the “longest genocide in history.” That’s ridiculous. But the embargo itself is also absurd and counterproductive, accomplishing nothing but hurting the Cuban people — whom we supposedly aim to help. 
Aaahh, now it is revealed that indeed Mr. Kristof is in and seeks to write about Acadia, and his irritation that it is not as picture perfect as he might have thought possible if all kinds of conditions were to magically change.  This is the ssort of mindset that got Americans into so much trouble in Iraq in 2003, when the ruling intellentsia and its bureaucratic allies embraced the view that all that might be needed was an invasion and that Iraq would then immediately reboot into some (other) sort of Arcadia. But back to Mr. Kristof's car ride form the airport.  The inspiration for his eclogue was a set of visuals that have become an opaque feature of Cuban life--the billboards denouncing the American Embargo in lurid terms.  Mr. Kristof is of course offended--Americans are not in the habit of slow motion genocides; besides there are still plenty of people in Cuba--those thoe have not emigrated anyway. Still it provides the opening needed to repaint the Cuban Arcadia with exercises of American will.

After six decades, can’t we move on? Let’s drop the embargo but continue to push Havana on improving human rights and on dropping support for other oppressive regimes, like those in Venezuela and Nicaragua.
The rhetorical question is a tried trope, but no less effective for that.  But here it is used to set up the argument Mr. Kristof is about to make.  One starts with a consideration of the opposite of current condition in order to draw the discursive lines to get from here to there. The "here" is the Embargo," the "there"is a state of engaged engagement of the peculiarly American sort--pushing Havana to be more like us or at least less like them. /(it is an odd position given the earlier assumption that all that is needed to make Cuba behave like a nice middle class country is to stop being mean to it)  But can he manage that given his starting assumption--that all of this depends solely on the U.S. and the exercise of its will? (And thus my rhetorical trope. . . but not a mocking imitation).

Let’s make room for nuance: Cuba impoverishes its citizens and denies them political rights, but it does a good job providing basic education and keeping people healthy. Cuba’s official infant mortality rate is lower than America’s (its real rate may or may not be).
This is an American speaking; and it is a "speaking" that requires some justification for a position that appears to be against American moral (ideological) interests, as well as for the need to "push." This produces a reliance on the much used realpolitik stance.
I’m not a Cuba expert, and I don’t know how this country will evolve. But Cuba has a new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, who is associated with experiments in opening up the economy. Fidel is gone and his brother Raúl is fading from the scene.
And here it is; the most interesting part of the essay.  It is the most interesting because it perfectly describes the context in which the American thought leader class operates as it seeks to manage mass opinion (and in the process use it to pressure bureaucrats and the politicians they manage). But the statements are at best naive.  One can take Mr. Kristof at his word about the depth of his country specific knowledge.  And that is telling for what comes next. Cuba doe shave a new president who was selected by the Communist Party of which he is a loyal and high rankling member,.  He is indeed associated with reform and opening up--but the every high ranking Communist Party official was as this initiative was at the center of the Communist Party's work since before 2011.  And, indeed, Fidel is dead, but Raúl remains First Secretary of the Communist Party and the effective leader of the country.  My growing fear is that this sort of naiveté has so infected the upper levels of the leader class in the United States that there are few capable of the sort of realistic thinking that Me. Kristof purports to champion. 

In the 1960s, we were scared of Cuba. We feared that neighboring countries would tumble like dominoes into the communist bloc, and the Soviet Union attempted to place on Cuba nuclear missiles that could have threatened America. But today even as those fears have dissipated, our policy has ossified.
If this was a session of therapy, this would be the thrilling bit where the patient finally reveals the source of pathology. I am not sure what one can say here other than it is hard to see the connection between the first and second sentence. It is certainly true that the fears of the 1960s have dissipated--but so have those of the 1980s etc.  Yet the release of historical fears says nothing about the structures of new challenges.  And from the American perspective there may well be something to be wary of.  At least that is what the National Security Strategy suggests.

President Barack Obama took the necessary step of re-establishing diplomatic relations and easing the embargo, but President Donald Trump reversed course and tightened things up again out of knee-jerk hostility to anything Cuban and anything Obaman.
 This paragraph reminds one that conclusions are all in the interpretive perspective in this case exaggerating both the value of the Obama initiative and the extent of the Trump retrenchment. Mr. Obama did start the process of normalization,  He was also quite clear about its limits--and he made it clear that it would be for Congress to dismantle the Embargo and that this would be dependent on internal reform.  Always useful to reread Mr. Obama's remarks during his visit to Cuba. At the same time, despite the bluster, Mr. Terump's retrenchment is more smoke than fire. And it is not clear how the Sonic Weapons scandal would have played out with a Democratic administration.  

Cuba is changing, albeit too slowly. About one-third of its labor force is now in the private sector, and this is just about the only part of the economy that is thriving. I stayed in one of the growing number of Airbnbs in Havana, and people were friendly, even if governments are not: When I said I was from the United States, I inevitably got a big grin and a reference to a cousin in Miami or New York or Cleveland.
It is always fun to extrapolate from personal experience, especially when it can be peppered with factoids.  The problem with factoids is that decontextualized one can hardly understand their impact. But some of this was personally cringeworthy--reminded me of the American travelogues to Cuba written int he 1930s. That comforts Americans but the reactions among Cubans might be somewhat different. 

Plus, extra credit goes to a country that so lovingly preserves old American cars. I rode in from the airport in a pink 1954 Cadillac.
I just don't know what to do with this.  But the picture helps. Cuba is not the Petit Trianon with its stylized pastoral atmosphere in which one can play act Arcadia, and this is not 1786, the appreciation of old cars changes perspective quickly depending on which side of the US-Cuba equation one sits. Again the eclogue trope rears its discursive head.
In another sign of flexibility, Cuba recently hammered out a deal with Major League Baseball that will allow Cuban players to travel legally to the U.S. and play on American teams.

Yet, sadly, the Trump administration is threatening the deal.
Yes, very nice.  This has been part of Cuban policy for a while.  And it is also a defensive move--the Cuban state has been frustrated about American poaching of its star p`layers, and they were looking for ways to reduce the flow.  This may or may not work. But it suggests little more than this. And we are not sure why the Trump administration seeks renegotiation, though this is hardly surprising given the MO of this Presidency.

Consider the persistence of North Korea and Cuba, and there’s an argument that sanctions and isolation preserve regimes rather than topple them. China teaches us not to be naïve about economic engagement toppling dictators, but on balance tourists and investors would be more of a force for change than a seventh decade of embargo.
Aaahhh the cocktail of communism argument.  China is not Cuba, and Cuba is not Korea. Each state requires an approach contextually appropriate.   None of this has anything to do with the value of the Embargo.  And, of course, one notices by omission Iran.  At the end of the paragraph all we have, again, is the simple equation: Embargo  was set up to aid in the overthrow of the Cuban Communist government; that has not happened, therefore the Americans should try something else.  But if that is the case, then is Mr. Kristof still advocating the overthrow of the Cuban Communist Regime? And is that is the case then might the Cubans be as suspicious of dismantling the Embargo as much as they despise the Embargo?   

Moreover, trade, tourism, travel and investment empower a business community and an independent middle class. These are tools to destabilize a police state and help ordinary Cubans, but we curtail them. America blames the Castros for impoverishing the Cuban people, but we’ve participated in that impoverishment as well.
Here one sees the brilliance of the Cuban position. Mr. Kristof adopts the Cuban position, especially its moral overtones without context. Here Mr. Kristof's verities are undermined, or at least substantially recast with a reading of the Communist Party's 2016 Reconceptualization of its Economic and political moidel along with its 20'30 economic plan.  Both suggest a rejection of the notion of class stratification, both suggest the primary importance of retaining those key sectors in the hands of the state, and both also reaffirm the need to contain foreign economic activity to avoid any substantial direct penetration of outside economic actors without close supervision by the state.  In that context Mr. Kristof's assumptions assume the character of a dream in which Cuba is absent. But then this argument is never about Cuba, where Cuba is reduced to a spiritual landscape with little relation to the Island sitting 90 miles from the US. 

Cuba’s government is not benign. It’s a dictatorship whose economic mismanagement has hurt its people, and Human Rights Watch says it “routinely relies on arbitrary detention to harass and intimidate critics.” But it doesn’t normally execute them (or dismember them in consulates abroad like our pal Saudi Arabia), and it tolerates some criticism from brave bloggers like Yoani Sánchez.
Here Mr. Kristof indulges in the game of the relativism of evil. Cuba is bad, but we are vexed with our Saudi friends who were clumsy enough to allow their Turkish enemies to record a murder (but do little to prevent it).  Surely, one is managed into thinking, the Cubans provide a better alternative. This, of course, is a political decision.  But if it suggests that sanctions against Saudi Arabia are good then the argument about sanctions fails, since Mr. Kristof has spent now many words to convince us that Embargoes are a bad idea.  Yet that cannot be entirely true--there is substantial support for the new approach to sanctions---the Global Magnitsky Act sanctions regimes.  And perhaps that is what might provide a better alternative to the ham handed Embargo.  But we never get there here. in this  that has seemed to

It is revising its constitution, and my hope is that over time — despite ideologues in both Havana and the United States — relations will continue to develop. Some American seniors who now winter in Florida could become snowbirds in Cuba instead, relying on its health care, low prices, great beaches and cheap labor. You can hire a home health care aide for a month in Havana for the cost of one for a day in Florida.

China’s economic boom began in the early 1980s partly with factories financed by Chinese overseas, and after the American embargo ends, Cuba will have similar opportunities to forge mutually beneficial business partnerships with Cubans overseas.
False analogies are always useful, lyrical and wistful reminders that the dream is always as close as one can get to perfection. 

That would benefit both sides. For 60 years, we’ve been feuding, like the Hatfields and the McCoys, in a conflict whose origins most Americans don’t even remember clearly.
If Mr. Kristof means what he had said earlier, then getting rid of the Embargo would substitute an open relationship in which the Americans would continue to push Cuba.  That is precisely what is likely to create incentives to keep our relations adversarial. Oh, and both the Cubans and the Americans remember quite clearly the origins of the acrimony.  That is not the issue.  The issue is interest and ideology.  And the question, which Mr. Kristof fails to ask, is the value of the Embargo to Cuba. For indeed, it does have a political value.  That value may not equal foregone economic progress--but Cuba measures economic welfare with a set of metrics quite different from those we use. Again reading the Conceptualiztion of the Political and Economic model provides useful guide.  But who likes reading primary sources?  If the Embargo goes then the Cubans will have to figure out a way to retain its political value in sme other way. For the Americans that produces a net zero value for change.  And that is a problem.

So come on. We should all be bored by a lifetime of mutual recriminations and antagonisms. Let’s put aside the ideology, end the embargo, tone down the propaganda and raise a mojito together.
Asking the Cubans and the Americans to put aside ideology is just ludicrous. Neither set of governing elites could possibly do that without precipitating serious political crisis--at least in the absence of other changes. But the failure of this last paragraph exposes the deepest weakness of the entire Arcadian exercise. Mr. Kristof fails to ask: if the Embargo ends tomorrow, would trade open up in the way he envisions? The answer has already been provided by thje Cubans and their approach to foreign direct investment with countries already quite willing to invest--and that answer is NO. The Embargo is only one half of the issue; the other half centers on the reception of investment and trade into Cuba. And in that respect the Cuba state has made it very clear that it will retain its virtually impermeable wall to unsupervised investment. It will likely keep foreign enterprises (except those of friendly states) within free trade zone ghettos, and the state will serve as the buffer between foreign investment and trade and the Cuban people. The Cuban state does this to protect its system and its internal control. Many inside and outside Cuba are unhappy with the result. But thatis a problem that removing the Embargo will not fix. 
I propose a toast to a new beginning.
And I propose that new beginnings start form mutual respect and from the humility to know that the issue of normalization will require both states equally involved. This is not an American matter but one dependent on the conduct and decisions of both states.

Kristof is a New York Times columnist.

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