A conversation with Harold Cárdenas

por Consejo Editorial

Harold Cárdenas responds in a conversation to essential questions about the Cuban present. He’s a political analyst and has been a founder and editor of La Joven Cuba. He tries to find the key to the challenges we cannot postpone: economic dissatisfaction, the legitimacy of the current government, the necessary democracy, and the necessary maturity for stable relations with the United States.

1) What are the main economic difficulties in Cuba? How does that affect society? How much does that damage the social legitimacy of the authorities? Would that create any sort of social tension? Does the government foresee that?

The history of economic difficulties in Cuba is long, and it extends beyond the revolutionary period. In the last 60 years, one could highlight the effect of the American embargo on the island and the subordination of the national budget to political decision-makers with very little economic experience. Also, the different exchange rates, a mostly informal economy, limited access to foreign currency and the pandemic of the last few months make economic planning and growth in the island complicated. But perhaps the greatest source of social frustration isn’t the state of the domestic economy, but the delaying of economic reforms announced over a decade ago.

The optimism and relative consensus reached by Raúl Castro in his first years of government have been followed by a growing skepticism regarding the political will to effect deep changes in the country. This scenario of internal disillusionment, fueled by the policy of maximum pressure on the island applied by the Trump administration, has little chance of causing a civil uprising, but it can easily multiply episodes of confrontation between sectors of civil society and the Cuban opposition, with the use of the repressive forces.

Until now, evidence indicates that the Communist Party is delegating to the Ministry of the Interior the handling of tense situations with the citizens, which in previous decades were resolved politically and with the leadership of the Party. If this trend continues, the legitimacy of Cuban institutions will be further damaged.

2) The modifications the Cuban social model needs require the existence of an active civil society. However, it wouldn’t be able to take on that role without certain previous reforms that may empower it. Could this society effectively manage said prominence without access to the right of association, to the public sphere, to power institutions? What concessions in that sense could the government offer to it out its own initiative?

Two factors may be highlighted in the limits of Cuban civil society: its use by successive US administrations as a tool for regime change in the island, and the government’s ill will towards all kinds of organizations that are not subordinated to its interests. A relaxation or elimination of sanctions against Cuba would contribute to that favorable context for the civil society-State relationship, but that’s an external factor which depends on the internal dynamics of another nation.

One positive step that’s in the hands of the Cuban government is creating incentives so that the organizations which today operate in illegality (and non-legality) become inserted in national legality, seek forms of sustainability not linked to foreign funding with political objectives in Cuba, and participate with full guarantees in their role as social actors.

Another necessary sign which may serve as an incentive for civil society and the country in general, is that the Cuban government explain its vision of how a democratic peace would work in Cuba in the absence of the American embargo; how they would insert marginalized political sectors and guarantee the normal development of civil society. The absence of incentives like these, which are totally within the reach of the Cuban authorities, generates mistrust and it obstructs national dialog.

3) Does the current dynamic of State institutions attain an adequate relationship with society? Does the manner of occupying their public offices (the authorities) guarantee their due legitimacy? Do the citizens have the instruments to turn social will into the State’s political will?

If the base of a modern state is the solidity of its institutions, then Cuba has a lot to worry about. Beyond the imperatives generated by running a country affected by sanctions, the island has seen a mix of customs inherited from the colonial period and the republic in the early 20th century, with mechanisms and practices imported from the Soviet Union. Neither of those deserves praise.

A country with an authoritarian legacy that’s hard to admit socially, with traits of corruption and administration problems going back centuries, must make a significant effort to build solid institutions irrespective of the prevailing government and ideology. That hasn’t been the case. The centuries of colonial government, the decades of dictatorship and corrupt governments (with notable exceptions) followed by Fidel Castro’s model of charismatic leadership, prevented an appreciation of the value of Cuban institutions and the promotion of a competent bureaucracy in the country. As a result, we have a government in which accountability is something exceptional and public opinion has no way to check the work of its institutions. The official-citizen relationship continues to be vertical, and legality protects the former more than the latter.

Cuban voters also have a very limited capacity to impose their will or their preferences regarding their leaders and the way institutions are managed. Any model of a future Cuba must not only provide for the participation of all of the country’s political factors, but also for a profound restructuring of national institutions and their relationship with the citizens.

4) Cuba needs full insertion into the ‘world system’. For that, evidently, it would be fundamental to have positive relations with the United States. However, the possibilities of that happening would seemingly depend on the logic that the US might be willing to do so, but only if the island presents realities that are somehow compatible with its interests and/or visions. This would require that Cuba make wide-ranging transformations so that a concrete arrangement with the northern neighbor may be realistic. What would those changes be? What would the Cuban government do about that? What seems possible in this regard?

Cuba has two basic options in its asymmetric relationship with the United States: to be allied with another nation that protects its interests or to align itself with the US, acknowledging its weakness with respect to the regional power. The latter choice seems particularly difficult for an island traumatized by the history of American military intervention and meddling in its domestic affairs, with a single communist party model, with a foreign policy forged during the Cold War with alliances radically opposed to the US, an exile community ready to recover assets that became public property six decades ago and an American transition plan that includes the political exclusion of the current party and government.

The first option has been the norm in the bilateral relation, seeking alliances first with the Soviet Union and then more modestly with the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Both have been imperfect and risk-filled experiences. These two options, respectively defined in Stephen Walt’s balance of power theory as balancing and bandwagoning, do not offer the island many options if the current bilateral relation maintains its course. However, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Regardless of the political and ideological preferences of Cuban decision-makers, a hostile relation with the United States isn’t sustainable in the long term and does not benefit the national interest, and this also applies to the American side.

For Cuba to change its strategy and build a new relationship with the United States, incentives and concessions on both sides are necessary, while avoiding irreconcilable stances. Demanding internal changes in Cuba in a context of emergency, without the US starting to eliminate the system of sanctions on the island, would not only be morally reprehensible, but would also be interpreted as another violation of its national sovereignty.

The first step could be to restore the normalization process started by former Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro, and then to make the rapprochement progress towards a scenario in which the embargo is eliminated, while democratic guarantees are required concerning the political participation of citizens and other debts predating the revolutionary period. Both governments can explore areas of joint collaboration, beginning with the handling of the global pandemic and then moving on to agreements that guarantee regional prosperity and stability.

In short, the construction of a democratic peace in Cuba is impossible without respect for its sovereignty by the United States and without overcoming a Cold War mentality in the Cuban leadership. These processes must happen simultaneously.

Taken from: El Poder de las Ideas

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