New Year’s News Blast Special Edition: Cuba in 2012 by Philip Brenner

What a year it has been.

2011 started with a decisive change in Cuba policy by the Obama administration that opened the door to travel for more Americans, opened the travel market to more U.S. airports, and opened new sources of financial support for everyday Cubans as their nation updates its economic model and they anticipate significant changes in their lives.

We at Cuba Central tracked these and other developments throughout the year, and we reported them – weekly and comprehensively -directly to you.

Even though it’s a holiday, we thought that some of our readers might be asking, “what about 2012?”

Good question. And we have an answer!

For this week’s special edition, we asked one of the best and most respected experts on U.S.-Cuba relations, Dr. Philip Brenner, to write about what may happen on the island in 2012 and the likely direction of U.S. policy.

Phil Brenner, professor of international relations at American University, has spent his academic career visiting and writing about Cuba, about Latin America more broadly, and about U.S. policy toward the region.   He is co-editor of A Contemporary Cuba Reader (Rowman and Littlefield), and co-author of Sad and Luminous Days: Cuba’s Struggle with the Superpowers after the Missile Crisis (Rowman and Littlefield). He is on the Advisory Board of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

If you read one thing about Cuba during this holiday weekend, we recommend this:

Looking Over the Horizon to 2012
By Philip Brenner

I returned two weeks ago from my first trip to Cuba in one year.  Though I had only a few days there, what I saw convinced me that 2012 will be a watershed year on the island. While predictions about Cuba are best made with crossed fingers, I’ll offer you here a brief glimpse of what may lie just over the horizon.

Hope Returns

One year ago, I could almost taste the air of disappointment which was palpable everywhere.  More than four years after Raúl Castro had assumed the leadership of Cuba from his brother, and after several promises of significant change, there seemed to be very little movement.  Fewer Cubans had applied for small business licenses than government planners had anticipated. Generous grants of free land had not led to an outpouring from the cities to the countryside, so that the program was not solving problems of food supply. The Cubans’ apathetic response to these initiatives was one reason Raúl decided not to follow through with his draconian plan to lay off one million people from the government payroll by March 2011, because there were not enough jobs outside of the government to absorb so many unemployed workers.  As a result, the bureaucracy continued to lay mired in inefficiency and corruption.

This December, I found more food in the stores, and what could even be called an upbeat mood. To be sure, tourism increased to over 2.5 million visitors with some improvement in the world economy, and remittances from relatives abroad were up. Cuba’s GDP grew more in 2011 than it had in 2010.  But something intangible also had changed. For the first time in many years, I sensed that hope had returned – even among young people. There will be a major Communist Party “Conference” at the end of January – a follow-up to the 6th Party Congress held in April 2011.  There are few details about what will happen at the Party Conference, but there was a nearly unanimous anticipation among people with whom I spoke – from taxi drivers, to students, academics, retired workers, and former and current government officials — that the Party Conference would speed up necessary change on the island.

Party Conference

Prior to the April 2011 Party Congress, Cubans engaged in months of debate over more than 200 proposed lineamientos or guidelines for economic and social policy that the Congress would consider (see CDA’s 2011 study,  Cuba’s New Resolve: Economic Reform and its Implications for U.S. Policy, written by Collin Laverty). While the countrywide discussions led to modifications of nearly all the lineamientos, the guidelines remained fairly general. The Congress apparently also left some key decisions unresolved. This situation produced the need for a procedure that had not been used before, a Party Conference.

Opening on January 28, 2012, the First Party Conference formally will take up 97 items listed in its Basic Document.  But during my recent visit, I was encouraged to monitor how the Conference handles three issues listed in the introduction which could be centrally important to the changes occurring in Cuba:

  1. “Assuring the promotion of women, blacks, mestizos, and young people to positions of major responsibility”: This could result in the retirement of some elderly party leaders and the elevation of a new generation to the Politburo and even the Council of Ministers.
  2. “The current challenges demand us…to open channels for legitimate individual and collective aspirations; and to face prejudices and discrimination of all kinds that persist within the bosom of the society”: The context for this objective is a surrounding list of criticisms about the party that suggest it has become too bureaucratic, too concerned about upholding “obsolete dogmas and perspectives,” and too distant from the daily lives of Cubans.  The implied message: the Party is not currently able to play its appropriate role as a vanguard which can guide the country in confronting its challenges. One possible outcome, therefore, may be a significant reduction in the size of the Party, so that only those who are the most ideologically well prepared and psychologically fit can be members. This change would relate directly to a third objective.
  3. Revising the “Party’s relationship to the Union of Young Communists and the mass organizations”: This would propel the process of restructuring  begun in 2009, to rationalize decision making by reducing the authority of the Party over specific government operations, and increasing the responsibility and accountability of government agencies.  By attenuating close ties between the Party and the mass organizations – the Women’s Federation, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the Small Farmers Association, the Federation of University Students, and the Labor Confederation – the apparent hope is that these organizations will recover some useful function, and actually represent various interests in a kind of pluralistic competition that will also add to the legitimacy of government decisions.

The Conference also is likely to endorse Raúl’s campaign against corruption, which he declared on December 23 to be “one of the principal enemies of the Revolution, much more harmful than the subversive and interventionist activities of the U.S. government…”.

In addition, the Cuban president may use the Conference to announce a change in travel regulations – reducing or removing restrictions on access to passports and exit visas – which Cubans were hoping he would have proclaimed on December 23.

However, it is unlikely that the Conference itself will initiate further economic changes. These were rolled out throughout 2011 and are likely to continue throughout 2012. This week, for example, the government announced that it would rent space in state-owned workshops for the private practice of several categories of professionals, including carpenters, locksmiths, and jewelers. In the last year the number of Cubans who obtained licenses to start their own businesses nearly doubled to 338,000, according to an AP story in the Huffington Post.

Political Change

Even before the Party Conference, there has been a significant rejuvenation in the Party leadership. The Western press is fond of noting that the Cuban President is 80 years old, and that he selected as his first vice president a youthful José Ramón Machado Ventura, who is 81.  But the Council of Ministers, which has gained significant power, is made up of 34 people whose median age is 56 and average age is 60.  Contrast that to President Barack Obama’s Cabinet, which has an average age of 55, or the U.S. Senate where the median age is 62.

Twenty-five percent of the Council of Ministers are women, and nearly forty percent of the Communist Party’s Central Committee’s membership is female.  Consider one example. The Ministry of Foreign Relations has only two members on the Central Committee. One is the Minister of Foreign Relations; the other is Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, the 50-year old chief of the North American desk.  Internationally respected as a savvy professional, she is a likely future foreign policy leader.

Perhaps more striking, as Temas Editor Rafael Hernández observed in a November lecture at theInter-American Dialogue, the average age of the provincial party heads is 44 years. One notable rising star is Mercedes López Acea, the General Secretary of the Communist Party in Havana province.  A 46-year old woman of mixed descent, she was trained as a forest engineer, rose quickly through the party ranks far away from Havana, and now is a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party.

In 2012, political change is likely to be spurred by the grassroots as well as from the center. As the central government devolves more decision making authority and funds to municipal governments, the election campaigns for the municipal assemblies may possibly become more actively contested. Party membership is not a requirement for election. At the same time, there will be wider use of email, and with a fiber optic connection finally working, increased access to the Internet. The operation of a broad band cable had been delayed by the installation of faulty equipment, a rumored result of corruption in ETECSA, Cuba’s telecommunications company.

The political role of the Catholic Church also has been growing, along with the government’s tacit approval of its activities, and it is likely to continue in 2012.  Church commentaries on Cuba’s economic and social changes – published by Havana’s archdiocese in Espacio Laical – are often critical, invariably cogent, and widely available. Notably, Raúl Castro linked the Council of State’s announcement on December 23 – that the government would be granting amnesty to approximately 2,900 elderly and sick prisoners – to Pope Benedict XVI’s planned spring 2012 visit to Cuba.  (Similarly, the release of 52 political prisoners in July 2011 was facilitated by meetings with church officials.)

U.S.-Cuban Relations

Alan P. Gross was not among the 2,900 prisoners released. The U.S. government refuses to take the one step that would enable a discussion about Gross’s release even to begin: publicly acknowledging that the USAID sub-contractor violated Cuban laws. As Fulton Armstrong, who recently resigned as a senior Senate Foreign Relations Committee staffer, wrote in the Miami Herald on December 26, “When a covert action run by the CIA goes bad and a clandestine officer gets arrested, the U.S. government works up a strategy for negotiating his release. When a covert operator  working for USAID gets arrested, Washington turns up the rhetoric, throws more money at the compromised program, and refuses to talk.”

U.S. officials have said repeatedly that there can be no movement on U.S. relations with Cuba until Cuba frees Gross from prison. However, U.S. and Cuban officials have been meeting quietly to discuss several issues, and they are likely to continue doing so in 2012.  These have included periodic migration talks, monthly meetings to maintain peace and order at the Guantanamo Naval Base fence line, and ongoing cooperation between the Cuban and U.S. coast guards and drug enforcement agencies. Significantly, U.S. and Cuban officials met earlier this month at multilateral sessions in the Bahamas, to discuss potential responses to oil spills that might result from drilling in the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Florida Straits. Repsol, a Spanish energy firm, is slated to begin off-shore drilling in Cuban territorial waters in mid-February. (The Cuba Central News Blast reported on December 9, and I confirmed during my trip to Havana, that Cuba did attend the Bahamas meeting, though a U.S. State Department press release had omitted Cuba from the list of participating countries.)

Meanwhile, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Controls has continued to issue licenses for educational and humanitarian travel, and the State Department has steadily approved visas for visits by Cuban scholars. Earlier this month, President Obama held fast in threatening to veto the $1 trillion omnibus appropriations bill for FY 2012 (which began on October 1, 2011) if it contained an amendment sponsored by Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (Republican-Florida) that would have reinstated severe restrictions on Cuban-Americans’ travel to the island and their remittances to family members. One test of the Obama’s resolve will come in May, when the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) holds its International Congress in San Francisco. LASA has been convening outside of the United States since 2004, because the Bush Administration denied visas to all the Cubans scheduled to participate in the 2003 meeting. More than 30 Cuban scholars will be seeking visas for San Francisco.

In any case, the calm in the relationship is unlikely to last much past the New Year’s hiatus, as Cuba could well be an issue in the 2012 presidential election. In late November, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney gleefully accepted endorsements from Representatives Díaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Republican-Florida). No quid pro quo was revealed publicly, but I cannot imagine that they gave their support to Romney without receiving assurances he would take a hard-line position on Cuba. Also in November, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich weighed in on Cuba, baldly declaring in an interview that he was working on a plan “to get the Cuban people to freedom by 2014.”

Indeed, the calm is balanced precariously on a razor thin edge. Any number of events in 2012 could bring on new tension. Consider that one year ago Cuba and the United States were well advanced in discussions over a potential joint program to aid Haiti after the devastating Port-au-Prince earthquake. The United States would have supplied equipment and medicine, and Cuba would have supplied medical personnel for the project. But planning collapsed, according to U.S. officials, when former Cuban President Fidel Castro took umbrage at remarks by former U.S. President Bill Clinton ignoring the contribution of Cuban and Latin American doctors in providing relief to Haiti. Cuban officials counter that the project stalled because the United States refused to suspend its covert program to recruit Cuban doctors who are sent abroad.

Since 2006, the U.S. agents have brought more than 1,600 Cuban doctors to the United States with offers of immediate citizenship and support for obtaining a U.S. medical license. “How could we possibly expose our doctors in Haiti to this subversive campaign?” a Cuban official exclaimed to me in an interview. “Why can’t the State Department understand how their programs undermine possibilities for cooperation?” he asked rhetorically. The State Department and USAID have nearly $50 million in funding for various programs aimed at provoking the Cuban government in 2012.

International events might also affect the U.S.-Cuban relationship. Turmoil in Venezuela, or an Israeli attack against Iran could well place the United States and Cuba on opposing sides.  President Obama may feel pressure to “punish” Cuba by cutting back on Cuban visas, imposing new restrictions on educational travel, and reinstalling obstacles that increase the difficulty for U.S. suppliers to sell food and medicine to Cuba.

Yet if Respol or other international energy giants strike oil in Cuban waters, the United States may find it has a new calculus in defining its interests vis-à-vis Cuba, and U.S. oil firms may decide it is worth their while to lobby for changes in Cuba policy. Discovering oil “would be a game changer,” National Security Archive senior researcher Peter Kornbluh aptly remarked in an interview on December 26.

There is a bravado in Cuba now, as several people told me they no longer pay much attention to the United States. That’s not true. I found as much interest as ever in the U.S. election, the U.S. economy, and U.S. baseball.  But it is true that as Cuba moves ahead in 2012, officials will not count on improved relations with the United States in planning their next steps. In September President Obama remarked in a White House interview that “Hopefully, over the next five years, we will see Cuba looking around the world and saying, we need to catch up with history.” I can readily believe that President Castro might wish the same awakening for the United States in 2012.

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