A Crossroads with an Electoral Sign

by Yassel A. Padrón Kunakbaeva

It just keeps pouring in 2020. It’s been truly cataclysmic. However, one of its greatest hits is yet to come: the November election for the presidency of the United States of America. It’s an event that thoroughly matches this year, especially because at stake are many practical issues regarding the way in which world politics will behave in the next few years.

The Trump phenomenon will be studied for a long time for the interesting effect it has on the transformation of American society and the establishment of the 21st century. Since the century began, three different ways of approaching the hegemony of the US empire have resided at the White House. First came the maximalist, neoconservative hegemony of Bush Jr., who intended to sweep up sixty dark corners of the world. But the stagnation in the Middle East and the rise of emerging powers made that outmoded dream fail. Then came the era of Obama, who tried to take soft power to its highest expression and save the economic, political, and cultural hegemony of America.

The projection of Obama’s administration to the world can be described as an attempt to save a model of globalization with the US at the helm. This had an economic expression, in the intense and nearly successful negotiations to achieve a free trade Transpacific Treaty, as well as in the attempt to reach a Transatlantic Treaty. Politically, the fundamentals of that projection are particularly revealed by Obama’s speech at the University of Cairo in 2009 and by his other speech at the Great Theater of Havana ‘Alicia Alonso’ in 2016. The idea was to make emphasize the positive aspects of globalization: economic cooperation, multilateralism, international institutionalization, cultural cosmopolitism, etc, while also renouncing the aggressive methods and strategies of previous administrations, but with the purpose of maintaining the privileged position of the US in that framework.

Nevertheless, we can see that the Obama doctrine had internal contradictions. Firstly, the purpose of sustaining the North-Atlantic scaffolding of globalization made it become involved in several fourth-generation wars, including Syria, Libya, Ukraine, and on a more discreet level, Venezuela, all of the cases in which the worst face of US imperialism was visible. But there was also a contradiction in the domestic economy: the strong bet on globalization prevented an efficient curtailing of the negative consequences of neoliberal globalization for the American low and middle classes, especially in the old industrial states. Those contradictions paved the way for the appearance of the Trump phenomenon.

The victory of a populist like Trump has more to do with the crisis of the US hegemonic model than with a strategic movement of the elites. I believe it’s rather safe to say that the elites in 2016 had mostly bet on Hillary Clinton. This explains, to some extent, the rejection of a large part of the mainstream media for Trump. Of course, this is not absolute, there were conservative sectors that supported him and, especially, decided to take advantage of his victory once it was attained. In a way, we could say that Trump has caused in the American elites a much sharper division than what’s usual for that country. Let’s remember that we’re talking about a country where the alliance among the elites has been one of the factors for the stability and expansion of power for over two hundred years.

We then have that Trump rises as a relative anomaly, mostly thanks to two factors: the peak of a conservative populism that had been brewing in deep cultural dynamics –in the detection of which Steve Bannon proved to have been a genius– and the fact Donald Trump is a multimillionaire, which to some extent shields him from the blows of economic power. But Donald Trump also has a project to make America ‘great again’, only that it’s controversially constructed in opposition to the others.

Trump fully presents himself as anti-Obama.

He attempts to abandon two aspects which had been central: military interventionism in other regions of the world and the bet on economic neoliberalism. But this is only made possible by partly giving up the structure of globalization built as a consequence of the Second World War, and by taking up again an old tradition in US politics: isolationism. Isolationism and economic protectionism are Trump’s mottoes, in addition to anti-immigration policy and a domestically-oriented discourse of ethnic superiority. That is, he attacks the weaker points of Obama’s project, but with it, he also snubs Obama’s goals. It’s no coincidence that one of the first consequences of his victory was the shelving of the transpacific and transatlantic treaties.

This Trump doctrine is far from being a renovation of the neoconservative policy of the Bush period. On the contrary, the current president often criticizes the war in Iraq, abandoned Syria, and has taken the most important steps to exit the war in Afghanistan. In short, he’s chucked down the drain the most ambitious projects of the American elites for world hegemony: his policy is rather designed to be electoral machinery. That’s why part of the elites sees him as a problem that’s out of control and opposes him.

However, as I said before, Trump also wants to make America ‘great again’, within his limited and ignorant way of looking at the world. That’s why he significantly increased the military budget. He has also tried to gain an advantage on the economic rivals of the US with a policy of economic sanctions. This takes us to two new considerations: which have been the sectors that have profited from the existence of the Trump administration, and what have been its internal contradictions.

By raising the military budget and lowering the taxes for super millionaires, Trump brokered a certain peace with part of the economic elites. On the other hand, the political elites of the Republican Party, dependent on the electorate in great measure and unable to face the mass media phenomenon Trump was, were mostly forced to quietly accept him. As for the Democratic Party, it became largely radicalized against him, but that was accounted for in his political calculations and his game of polarization.

Therefore, a sector that was crucial for Trump to solidify his position in the White House was that of Cuban-American legislators, as well as that of hard-line anticommunists against Latin American socialism. They took advantage of the peculiar position of this president and his urgent need for political support to derive profit in their policies against Venezuela and especially Cuba. To ingratiate himself with them, in turn, Trump embarked on a policy of hostility in the continent which led to the recognition of Guaidó and the toughening up of sanctions against Cuba.

The showman in the Oval Office thus managed, for a time, a sort of stability, supported partly by retarding sectors of the elites, which had been displaced during the Obama administration, and partly by his media and populism machinery. It must also be acknowledged that his protectionist policies had an impact in the reduction of unemployment, although there’s strong evidence that the real salary has stagnated and inequality was on the rise. That stability was well on its way to guarantee him reelection.

Nevertheless, his policy was not free from contradictions. The main one was that the coherent practice of isolationism can only weaken the position of the US as a world hegemonic power. The relationship with the European Union has already suffered from Trump’s policies. Faced with this reality, and with the need to display himself as a tough man on a foreign policy level, the president resorted to sanctions, thus becoming the sanctions man. With this, although he has sometimes managed to make things difficult for his enemies and rivals, he has also fueled a great deal of resentment towards the US, and the solidarity between those who are sanctioned, something that’s obvious in, among other things, the current relations between Venezuela and Iran.

The general result has been that, although Trump had configured until early 2020 a domestic situation that could take him to reelection, on the international level he had accelerated the process of loss of relative importance of the US in the world stage.

A pandemic to cheer up the day.

The mediocre treatment of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ensuing economic and social crisis, as well as the sharpening of racial tensions after the murder of George Floyd, have configured a negative scenario for Donald Trump, which endangers his reelection. In these circumstances, when he has also been criticized for the excessive use of force against the demonstrators and for promoting an incendiary and divisive ‘Law and Order’ discourse, even figures in the military leadership and the Republican Party, who previously remained silent, have taken distance and criticized Trump.

The vital questions for us in Cuba then arise: What to expect of the next few months of this administration? What to expect of possible scenarios after November?

As different sectors, including some within the Republican ranks, turn their backs on him and polls show a downward trend, Donald Trump needs any support he can get. This makes the support of Cuban-American legislators like Marco Rubio even more necessary for him. They know that, and that’s why they use the possibility this president represents to snatch concessions in the form of new sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela. This explains the latest measures, such as the sanctions against Fincimex, which could affect the sending of remittances to Cubans.

Therefore, the most likely scenario is that in the next few months there will be an even greater worsening of sanctions. Some adventurous action by Trump against Caracas cannot be ruled out either. A win against any of those Latin American socialist governments would be a great victory in his hands with regard to foreign policy.

But you never know with Trump. On June 22 we woke up with the news that Trump no longer had a lot of trust in Guaidó, and that he might meet with Nicolás Maduro. Is Trump considering that it’s more convenient to negotiate with the Chavista government than to remain locked in a confrontation? Could it be that he decides to listen to Putin’s advice? Who knows?

This takes us to November. A Biden victory is very likely. What would happen then? Could we expect the normalization process with Cuba to return?

Biden has stated that, if he becomes president, he would restart the process of normalizing relations with Cuba. But beyond this initial statement, some clouds gather in the horizon to recommend certain skepticism or at least caution. A Democratic government such as his would arrive in the White House to try to restore sanity to Washington –or what they consider sanity– which is to restore the old hegemonic model. In that sense, they would have to do some intense damage control of the problems generated by Trump, which wouldn’t make Cuba a priority.

In this regard, an ugly cloud rises in the horizon, which is the issue of Venezuela. Generally, as the US loses hegemony in the world –and we have seen that the Trump administration accelerated that process–, it becomes more important for that country to discipline the American continent, and to drive away from Old World powers from its natural resources. In that sense, the existence of the Chavista government becomes intolerable. But there’s more, the US neoliberal elites have great cultural barriers to digesting and accepting the existence of Latin American socialism, whether Cuban or Venezuelan.

It’s possible that a Democratic government may embitter the confrontation with the government of Nicolás Maduro. Cuba, meanwhile, cannot betray its principles and abandon the alliance with Venezuela. That could be a roadblock to derail a possible process of normalization.

In reality, there can never be total peace between the US elites and the Latin American socialist governments, for there are irreconcilable antagonisms. The only lasting peace possible is that the Latin American socialist projects cease to exist, whether by unconditional defeat –which is the preferred solution of the most retarding elites, given their racist and imperialist culture– or through their economic and cultural assimilation into the capitalist system, with the socialist vanguards becoming simple local overseers in the service of foreign capitalism. Or, on the contrary, it could happen if there’s a profound revolution in the US, which modifies the social relationships of production. While those antagonisms exist, the most we can hope for is an armistice, an unstable truce of peaceful coexistence that could give the Cuban people some economic breathing room, after so many years of enduring the blockade.

Any process of normalization with Biden will be a minefield.

However, in case Trump wins, we would plunge into the unknown. Something is certain: if he continues to rely on the Cuban-American and anticommunist sectors, we may expect the worst possible scenarios at the hands of a president who would no longer have any other concern than to make the world his plaything. But, on the other hand, he wouldn’t need them so much, since there wouldn’t be reelection on the horizon. Or would Trump attempt to get re-elected for a third term, as he has joked on occasion, and as his ego certainly urges him to do? In the case of this last option, he could drive the US to an even greater institutional crisis.

Among the least likely options is that he may decide to negotiate with Maduro, after which he could even try to retake himself the process of normalization with Cuba. Some would say that’s outlandish, but it doesn’t seem impossible to me. Second terms in US politics have always been different from first terms.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t like to raise false hopes. Donald Trump is a danger to humanity while he sits in the Oval Office, even if it’s just for his psychological features. An election win for him could be extremely tragic in terms of the suffering it might bring to our people. In that sense, I prefer a victory for Biden, although I don’t get my hopes up as for what Democrats aligned with the old order might offer.

That’s how it looks at the crossroads. And we still have a few months to go.

Contact the author: yasselpadron1@riseup.net