Cultural obstacles to U.S.-Cuba relations

Editors’ Note: For changes in U.S.-Cuba relations to occur, Ted Piccone argues, both Washington and Havana need to overcome significant barriers. These include cultural obstacles, historical distrust, and elite opinions on both sides. Until these barriers are broken, change in Cuba will remain incremental at best. This post was originally published by the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs

Like the complex microclimates surrounding any process of defrosting, Cuba and the United States are entering a new environment in which traditionally frozen actors have been set afloat, some now clinging to the status quo, while others row furiously toward a new horizon.

On the surface, excitement is melting glaciers on both sides of the Florida Straits. For captains of high culture and capitalism, as well as pop stars like Rihanna, Cuba has become hot, hot, hot. Some want to see the island before its faded charms (and poverty) are overtaken by a cheap, crass commercialism from the north. President Obama’s decision to ease travel restrictions has led to a 54 percent increase in American travellers since 2014. Americans are now permitted to spend more at family-run inns and private restaurants and bring home Cuba’s famous rum and tobacco products – putting dollars into the hands of more Cubans. Arts and music entrepreneurs are jumping at the chance to meet the pent-up demand for cultural exchange. Cruise ship companies are plotting new routes around the island for cultural and educational travel. Remittance levels are uncapped, allowing not only Cuban-American families, but also American NGOs and philanthropists to inject capital into Cuba’s emerging private sector. Once Congress lifts the ban on tourist travel, a flood of Americans will follow, driving demand by U.S. travel, banking, and food companies to get in on the action.

On the streets of Havana, these new visitors will experience firsthand a surprisingly friendly welcome and increasingly frank criticism of Cuba’s aging regime and fraying social safety net. They will encounter clusters of Cubans huddled around glowing cellphone screens in Cuba’s still sparse and expensive Wi-Fi hotspots, connecting with family in Florida or checking on the latest news and sports abroad. At Havana’s thriving nightclubs and restaurants, Cubans with jobs in the tourist economy, or with generous family connections, are up on Hollywood’s latest movies and TV and Miami’s newest bands. In sum, culture high and low is greasing the wheels for the long overdue détente underway at official levels of government. These processes are giving a much-needed lift to Cuba’s economy, as it faces heavy crosswinds from the price collapse of its main export commodities, nickel and refined oil.

But in order to achieve meaningful and lasting change in U.S.-Cuba relations, both sides must tackle a much deeper layer of cultural obstacles lying in the path toward rapprochement. Unlike in past eras, key agents who traditionally have stood in the way of change are now in play.

In the United States, the historically prevalent strategic culture that cast Castro’s Cuba as a menacing threat has shifted, but only recently are the political and policy worlds catching up. Obama’s critical insight that Cuba is not a threat unless it collapses into conflict or chaos is paving the way for a series of executive measures to relax the embargo and facilitate bilateral cooperation on medical missions to Haiti, marine environment protection, and counternarcotics. But if Obama’s policy of encouraging a soft landing for Cuba is to be sustained, Cuba may want to demonstrate relatively soon that it is sincerely approaching the runway with all of its passengers on board. This includes not only the emerging and still struggling sector of licensed small businesses necessary to absorb state workers, but also opposition activists whose basic political and civil rights the government continues to deny.

On this score, Pope Francis’ celebrated visit to Cuba may have helped convey important messages of reconciliation and social friendship to a society riven by internal snooping and harassment. However, the visit failed to lend a hand to more outspoken voices of Cuba’s civil society. Cuba’s painfully slow process of economic reform – a result of bureaucratic inertia and elite anxiety over losing control – is failing to attract the foreign investment necessary for growth, leading international businesses to look for better opportunities elsewhere. Cuba’s secretive dealings with hardline regimes in Russia, Iran, and North Korea add to the uncertainty.

Cuban-American culture presents another stumbling block to meaningful change. Accustomed to maintaining control of the pro-embargo agenda, Miami’s old guard began fragmenting several years ago, and the pace of change in popular attitudes is accelerating. Recent years’ papal visits have served as a safe umbrella for Cuban elites in Miami to travel to their homeland and facilitated the healing of the fractured Cuban family, a critical step in the process of personal and political reconciliation. But can Florida’s politicians move on as well? Despite a series of polls demonstrating significant majorities of Cuban-Americans, Latinos, and Floridians favoring renewed diplomatic relations and a lifting of the embargo, all signals suggest it is unlikely in the short term. Federal elections in November 2016 will help clarify whether the forces of change are strong enough to prevent any serious rollback in Obama’s new policy of engagement, but significant congressional action to relax the embargo in the short term will be an ongoing battle.

Finally, perhaps the greatest obstacle to U.S.-Cuba reconciliation resides deep in the hearts and minds of Cuba’s leaders. This is likely the most important element to the whole game and also the most difficult to penetrate. Multiple layers of tension are apparent: between the reformist wing of Raulistas and the hardline faction of Fidelistas; between civilian technocrats emerging from inside and outside Havana and military leaders standing to gain the most from their increasing control of the economy; between the old guard who fought for the revolution and younger generations who prefer to escape the confines of government restrictions; between leaders of the religious, academic, artistic, and small business communities trying to promote change from within the system and the traditional dissidents determined to provoke regime collapse.

All these various agents of change are preparing for the post-Castro future that awaits in 2018, when Raúl has promised to relinquish power. But it’s not at all clear how Cuba will get from here to there. The Communist Party’s next congress in April 2016 may offer some telling signs of whether Cuba’s regime is ready to tackle another round of reforms. In the meantime, change is likely to happen only in fits and starts.