No. 13: January-June 2015


Kees van der Pijl


US-Cuban Relations

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present situation of the US-Cuban relations?


After November 2014, Barack Obama apparently gave up the idea of seeking to mollify the Republican Party henceforth controlling both houses of the US Congress. One of his key original promises in the election of 2008, viz., to close the prison camp for terror suspects on the US naval base at Guantánamo in Cuba, which for all these years had failed to be fulfilled, highlighted that the president of the United States is only a small cog in the imperial machine, and not necessarily one obstructing its smooth operation, on the contrary. Indeed as Jeremy Scahill’s Dirty Wars (2013) documents, the president has in fact ratcheted up operations associated with the War on Terror, adopting the Israeli practice of targeted assassinations instead of Bush-era torture of terror suspects.


Even so, with little to lose any longer in his remaining two years in office, Obama has not only begun to work on the closure of the Guantánamo prison camp, but also has ended the attempt to isolate the communist island state itself. After more than half a century this policy had actually resulted in nothing else than the opposite effect. In the annual vote in the UN General Assembly to end the US boycott of Cuba, only Israel and the tiny Pacific island state of Palau continued to side with the Americans. Thanks to the mediation of Pope Francis, an Argentinean himself, this charade can now in principle be terminated.


Whilst president John F. Kennedy, who originally imposed the blockade, was already assassinated in 1963, Fidel Castro survived a legendary series of attempts at his life orchestrated from the other side of the Florida straits under nine subsequent US presidents, with Cuban exiles, the mafia and the CIA all involved one way or another. And although he has meanwhile retired from active politics himself, his brother Raúl was able to speak to Obama on the phone as the uncontested ruler of the island state.


Of course the Republicans and a large section of the Cuban exile community in Florida have protested loudly against Obama’s decision. Also, the actual lifting of the economic embargo, which requires legislation unlikely to be granted by Congress any time soon, is still in abeyance. But clearly things are moving. Where will they end? Cuba has stressed that the new relationship will have to be based on equality, and Raúl Castro in a speech has sought to dampen all too naïve expectations among Cubans that great changes are ahead for them.


From my own brief experience in Cuba in November 2012, which included a plenary address to a conference in the social faculty in the University of Havana and a privately organised tour of a number of cities in the western half of the island (Santa Clara, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, and Playa Girón, the beach where the US-supported landing of Cuban exiles ended in defeat), I could easily see the difference with the Soviet bloc states of the past, notably the GDR which I knew best. And this was not just a matter of Caribbean sunshine either. Certainly I needed no reminding that Cuba too is necessarily a state socialism with a particular repressive aspect that should not be minimised. Socialism cannot exist next to capitalist imperialism without surrendering some of its key characteristics in the sphere of direct democracy to the need for vigilance, and those entrusted with its defence will in turn seek to perpetuate their power. But there is something authentic and vigorous about society in Cuba that is the legacy of a domestic revolution which only later turned to Soviet protection.


Cuban state socialism will continue to have to defend itself  if it persists in a political economic order that is anathema to its merciless northern neighbour. It is the far lesser party in a highly unequal balance, up against a behemoth which has never once granted a single state the right to decide on its own fate if that implied taking its distance from US or Western oversight. The relentless probing of every nook and cranny on the island to find ways for stirring unrest, most recently the pitiful attempt by USAID to turn the island’s rap scene into a channel for dissent, also makes it clear that a multiparty system with professional politicians as we have it, instead of the graded neighbourhood and workplace representation of the one-party state, would only serve to facilitate US (and no doubt, EU) intervention.


This is not just paranoia. In the 1960s, when De Gaulle steered France towards a more independent position in the Cold War, French foreign minister Maurice Couve de Murville already complained to the United States that their undercover financing of ‘Atlantic-minded’ parties in the country was intolerable and it is often forgotten that the May 1968 revolt served as a model for US and British intelligence to begin to develop new ways of engineering regime change.


In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?


I see two major short-term risks for Cuba and its social and political system at stake in the Obama opening, and engineered regime change is one of them. The second concerns its economy, more particularly agriculture.


I begin with the ‘May 1968’ regime change techniques, drawing on the discussion in chapter 5 of my Discipline of Western Supremacy (Pluto Press, 2014, see there for references). The idea of manipulating youthful protest movements can be traced to the psychological warfare branch of the British military, the Tavistock Institute. Its director, Fred Emery, in 1967 came up with the idea of deploying ‘swarming adolescents’ against unwanted governments and state classes. Of course the ‘swarms’ must be there in the first place, but the eventual resignation of De Gaulle, destabilized by May 68, demonstrated the viability of the principle. In the United States, Gene Sharp, a former aide to A.J. Muste, the Trotskyite labour activist and pacifist and after his studies at Oxford, teaching political science at Harvard and the University of Massachusetts, developed comparable ideas to Emery’s.


In the 1970s Sharpe’s concept of mobilising the fervour of new generations arriving on the scene to unseat unwanted leaders by staging colourful youth festivals, resonated with psychological warfare officers of the US Army in Europe and the undercover networks associated with NATO (and later exposed in the Gladio revelations in Italy). As opposition movements in Eastern Europe became more sophisticated, support for them should be geared up as well. Sharpe’s notion of ‘withdrawing consent’ through peaceful occupations of public spaces, with campsites and round-the-clock pop festivals, fitted the bill. The Albert Einstein Institution in Boston that he founded in 1983 was part of a broader trend of ‘democracy promotion’ at the time and for which the US Congress established the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). As the Soviet bloc began to crumble, the unleashing of ‘swarming adolescents’ on reforming or newly constituted states to ensure their full conversion to the neoliberal model was tried out on various occasions.


From Lithuania, where Sharp provided training to rebels against the USSR in 1990, to Albania, this has drawn a trail of US-supported and occasionally, stage-managed ‘civil society revolutions’. Under the auspices of the International Republican Institute (IRI) in 1998-2000, Sharp and his acolyte, US intelligence officer and military attaché, Col. Robert Helvey, travelled to Belgrade to train Otpor (‘Resistance’), after which followed Georgia, Ukraine, and Kirgizstan. Of course there has to be an authentic movement to support, and even then success may not be forthcoming. In Belarus US-style democracy promotion backfired, and Sharpe and Helvey also had to travel to Venezuela to discuss with wealthy citizens after the failed coup attempt against Hugo Chávez in April 2002. In Russia, Putin has encouraged the formation of a home-grown youth movement, Nash (‘Ours’), which can be deployed should the tents of a pro-Western campsite go up in Red Square.


As one article in the Tavistock Institute journal, Human Relations, entitled ‘rock video in Kathmandu’ outlined, recalcitrant regimes should be exposed to aggressive forms of Western culture (‘global civilisation’) such as rock concerts, to make them  bow before ‘civil society’. The USAID attempt to utilise the Cuban rap scene acquires its meaning in this context, but so do Obama’s specific references to ‘civil society’ in Cuba, and so on. There is not the slightest doubt that the Cuban state will face the democracy promotion machinery developed across the Florida straits once substantial discontent would manifest itself.


Where would such discontent come from? Here the resurgence of a Cuban bourgeoisie, notably those with assets such as homes from before the revolution they are allowed to rent out as casas, private bed-and-breakfasts, is relevant. These owners earn CUCs (the tourist currency intended to prevent tourists to profit from low peso prices) and so do many others, from impromptu service providers to prostitutes. The distorting effect of this two-currency system includes, as I discovered myself, taxis being driven by economists or agronomists who prefer CUCs to the peso income on which they would have to depend if employed by the state according to their qualifications. Indeed this was so obvious right on arrival that in my speech to the social faculty I was already referring to it as part of my introductory remarks. The difference with the Eastern Europe of old included a frank discussion that followed and which referred to plans to revoke the dual currency system, but as I write this is still being postponed. My hunch would be that if this is not dealt with equitably, in such a way that the supporters of the socialist system, such as the black Cubans who enjoy the relative (not absolute) absence of racism, no longer feel duped by it, discontent might arise at some point, with the children of the ascendant bourgeoisie a potential ‘swarm of adolescents’.


The other short-term danger to the Cuban system concerns its economy and more particularly, agriculture, where unique developments have been taking place. Here I base myself on Sylvia Kay’s ‘Alternatives to Agribusiness: Agro-ecology and the Peasant Principle’, a chapter in my forthcoming edited collection, Handbook of the International Political Economy of Production (Edward Elgar, planned for publication in January 2015).


According to her analysis, small farmers in Cuba have been at the forefront of a transition from export-oriented, industrial agriculture towards agro-ecological farming. Their knowledge and use of organic fertilisers, biological forms of pest control, and animal traction made them remarkably adept at responding to the Cuban economic crisis that followed the collapse of the USSR. The movement of small farmers, MACAC, which comprised a nucleus of 200 families in 1999, by 2009 had grown to encompass 110 000 families—a third of the total peasant sector. Its success rests on the dissemination of good practice by farmers themselves, which makes costly overhead unnecessary. Cuba’s food sovereignty policy, forced on it after the Soviet demise, led to overcoming its food shortage by 1995, and from 1996 to 2005, Cuba recorded an annual growth in per capita food production of 4.2 percent  compared to a regional average of 0 (zero) in Latin America and the Caribbean, with the best results coming from MACAC-type farms.


Not only has this success, incidentally helped by transferring state land to peasant cooperatives, induced a decline in food imports, it also has drastically diminished the use of agricultural chemicals. The social consequences of this are profound, not least because agriculture within the built environment has worked to bridge the landed-urban divide, an age-old socialist ideal. The fact that people are moving back to the countryside voluntarily is a further sign that this gap is being closed.


However, it is also obvious that Cuba in this respect has only achieved this by turning a very specific disadvantage (the collapse of the USSR combined with the continuing American embargo) into an advantage. The experiment owed its success to active state support for the process, a self-organising farming population, and the unique cost structure resulting from Cuba’s isolation from the US. But that precisely will be put to the test once economic links with the United States and all other countries now kept at bay by the American embargo, would be restored.


What are the structural long-term perspectives?


The inundation of Haiti with cheap American rice in the 1990s that ruined the country’s indigenous rice-growing sector and brought hundreds of thousands of former rice farmers to Port-au-Prince, where their shantytowns were the first to collapse when the great earthquake hit the island in 2010, is not likely to be repeated in Cuba. But the specific circumstances under which a promising new form of agriculture, socially and ecologically beneficial from the long-term perspective, could take root, will be suspended sooner or later. Also, the shift from the agricultural state sector to cooperatives and privately run farms may become imbricated with the resurgence of a Cuban (petty) bourgeoisie, whose offspring may one day come to confront the political status-quo in the island state.


From my own reading and limited experience, I would dismiss the popular idea that the Castro’s were only in power because the American embargo legitimated their rule. It is a fact however that any opening over the longer run will confront Cuba with powerful political and economic forces resonating in its own evolving class structure. The outcome is obviously uncertain, however much I hope that this unique historical experiment will be prolonged in the changing circumstances, helped by the creativity and democratic spirit that the Cubans have become renowned for. A spirit that over the years has sustained the solidarity with countries in need the world over, most recently through its dispatch of 300 medical personnel to Ebola-stricken West Africa.


To achieve a truly socialist society is inevitably beyond the reach of a single Caribbean island in a capitalist universe, but the world would be a much impoverished place without the Cuba as it exists today.                                                            

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Kees van der Pijl is professor emeritus in the School of Global Studies and fellow of the Centre for Global Political Economy at the University of Sussex, UK, and currently lives in Amsterdam. He has published in the field of transnational classes and recently completed a trilogy on Modes of Foreign Relations and Political Economy (Pluto Press, 2007-2010-2014).


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