Monday, December 22, 2014

No Immediate Regime Change in Cuba, But So What?

Despite last week’s historic breakthrough in U.S.-Cuba relations, Cuban President Raul Castro has made it clear that a major overhaul of his country’s political system anytime soon.  But while U.S. conservatives will use this as fodder to attack President Obama, some analysts contend that normalizing relations in Cuba is about more than pushing regime change on the island.

In a speech in Havana on Saturday Castro thanked Obama for moving to normalize relations with his country, even as he vowed that his government would stay true to the ideals of the Cuban revolution. “We can't pretend that by improving ties with the Unites States, Cuba will renounce the ideas for which it has fought for more than a century, for which its people have shed a lot of blood and have run the biggest of risks,” Castro said.

As the Associated Press reports, Castro’s speech was heavy on symbolism, and he delivered it to an audience that included Elian Gonzalez and the repatriated members of the Cuban Five. The president also declared that Cuba had “won the war,” and The New York Times notes that he “offered no immediate concessions to demands for improvement in Cuba’s human rights record.”

Of course, conservative opponents of Obama’s shift on Cuba see this as evidence against improving relations with the island. On Meet the Press Sunday, Senator Marco Rubio accused Obama of handing the Castro government a win while asking for nothing in return: “[I]f you’re going to make concessions to Cuba, if you’re going to recognize them diplomatically, if you’re going to have more commerce with them, there has to be some reciprocal opening on their part towards democracy,” Rubio said. “There was none.”

This logic was expanded in a Sunday Washington Post column by Jackson Diehl, who attacks Obama for allegedly failing to make demands for democratic progress as well as for the president’s stated wish to avoid a chaotic “collapse” in Cuba. According to Diehl, several successful democratic regimes have emerged from the rubble of such collapses; and “U.S. ‘engagement’ with Stalinist-style totalitarian regimes, such as Cuba, has never produced such a transition.”

President Obama, for his part, has argued that by normalizing relations the United States will be better positioned to offer incentives and disincentives to the regime to change its behavior. The Washington Post reports that in a Friday press conference, Obama told reporters:  “We will be in a position to respond to whatever actions they take, the same way we do with a whole range of countries around the world when they do things we think are wrong […] There may be carrots as well as sticks that we can then apply.”

Interestingly, Obama’s talk of carrots and sticks and Rubio’s calls for concessions rely on the same logic. Both positions assume that U.S. policy can somehow lead to regime change in Cuba. But as Gordon Adams writes in Foreign Policy, the U.S. holds a mixed -- at best -- record at state-building over the past century, one which he contends has been fueled by “the worst kind of American exceptionalist fantasy.” As he writes:

The fantasy that U.S. policies and actions can reshape another country has been with us for far too long. The ability of the United States to change any country’s internal economy or politics is extraordinarily limited, as our most recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan show, yet again. 
We have spent more than 100 years trying to remake other countries, often by force, sending the U.S. military into Haiti, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Panama, El Salvador, Vietnam, Guatemala, Iran, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, among many, many others. And we have spent billions, if not trillions, on democracy assistance, international broadcasting, and economic support funds to bring about political and economic change in other countries around the world.
Perhaps cynically, Adams argues that it is unrealistic to expect U.S. relations to have “anything more than a marginal impact” on Cuba’s internal system. However, the shift does amount to abandoning a decades-old approach that was not working and did more harm than good, an outcome that ought to be seen as positive in its own right.


News Briefs
  • Haiti’s ongoing political crisis saw a positive development on Saturday. As the Miami Herald reports, President Michel Martelly named Health Minister Florence Duperval Guillaume as his interim prime minister, and the president has said that later today he will present the opposition with a list of permanent candidates to the position.
  • Two articles in today’s headlines look at the impact of Obama’s Cuba announcement on Venezuela.  In Foreign Policy, Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez notes that for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, the announcement is likely a realization that his allies in Havana are adjusting to his own government’s failed policies. Writing for Time, Caracas-based journalist Girish Gupta asserts that Cuba likely learned its lesson from the post-Soviet collapse “Special Period,” and points out the 18-month secret talks between Havana and Washington began in the period of uncertainty following Hugo Chavez’s death.
  • Saturday marked the 25th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Panama, but the Central American country is still grappling with the impact of the operation. The AP notes that President Juan Carlos Varela on Saturday became the first leader of the country to attend a ceremony to remember victims of the invasion, and El Pais reports that a truth commission has been set up to promote reconciliation and address the demands of the victims.
  • Last week, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court issued an important decision in the genocide case against former dictator Efrain Rios Montt. As El Periodico and the AFP report, the court ordered lower judge Carol Patricia Flores to reverse an April 2013 ruling that found that the case should be reset to the investigative phase it moved out of in 2011. Flores has five days to revise her sentence, and the trial is expected to resume on January 5.
  • The FARC’s latest unilateral ceasefire announcement, which will be held “indefinitely” so long as its units do not come under attack, went into effect on Saturday, as the BBC reports. In a Sunday column for Bogota newspaper El Tiempo, editor Marisol Gomez Giraldo marked the news with an optimistic assessment of its ramifications for the peace process. According to her, the ceasefire amounts to a first step towards a bilateral end to hostilities, what some officials have called a “humanitarian de-escalation” of the conflict.
  • Following the appointment of Honduras’ first-ever active duty general as its next security minister (see last week’s post), InSight Crime’s Steve Dudley and David Gagne offer a damning analysis of the state of civilian policing in the country. According to them, the nomination represents the recognition of the sad fact that in Honduras, “the military are officially in charge of all things related to citizen security.”
  • In other drug policy news, tomorrow will make one year since Uruguayan President Jose Mujica signed his country’s historic marijuana regulation bill into law. The AFP reports that its signature component -- a commercial cannabis market -- remains in the planning stages, but cannabis clubs and home-growing have taken off in the country, as evidenced by a boom in marijuana-growing technology and paraphernalia.
  • Mexican news site Animal Politico reports on a new development in the case of two mass killings of migrants that occurred in 2010 and 2011 in the border state of Tamaulipas. According to details obtained by a freedom of information request from the attorney general’s office, municipal police were allegedly involved in the massacres of 72 and 193 migrants in the area, a revelation that had not previously been made public.