Break Out the Cigars!
What do evangelical Christians, the rice lobby, and Cuba’s tanking economy have in common? They all just got what they wanted.
Ever since the Cuban Revolution of 1959, every U.S. president has engaged in dialogue with Cuba to try to normalize relations. But for President Barack Obama, the dialogue yielded an agreement. He may not have ended the embargo — that would require a change in U.S. law — but Obama and Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, restored diplomatic relations. Among other reforms, the U.S. will open an embassy in Havana for the first time since 1961.
Why was Obama able to accomplish what nine other presidents have not? What changed to make this breakthrough possible? Psychologists, political scientists, and historians will debate these questions for years to come. But it is clear right now that a number of crucial shifts in both Cuba and the United States’ domestic politics converged to create this historic opportunity.
From the Cuban side, what seems to have tipped the scales is a confluence of economic insecurity with political security. Economically, the government is panicking. It introduced mild reforms in 2010-2011, such as opening the real estate markets, expanding the areas where self-employment is allowed, and liberalizing foreign investment. But to this day, the impacts of these reforms have been utterly disappointing, producing no major turnaround in Cuba’s chronic economic decline. Despite all the help that Cuba has received from Venezuela and China, the island remains a land of misery: The average monthly salary is less than $15, meat consumption per capita is lower than it was in the 1950s, and the rate of cell phone subscriptions per capita is the fifth lowest in the world. And now that Venezuela is less able to help, due to its very own economic collapse, Cuba’s economic future looks even more dire.
Paradoxically, Cuba’s economic decline has been accompanied by rising political security for the regime. Although Raúl’s economic reforms have attracted most attention in the media, he has made his biggest inroads in politics. Raúl’s task when he inherited the reins of government in 2006 from his brother Fidel was to “de-Fidelize” Cuba. That meant turning key political institutions — the armed forces and the Communist Party — more pro-Raúl and less pro-Fidel. This entailed making these institutions less drunk with the dogmatic, anti-American, anti-capitalist radicalism that Fidel popularized in Cuba since 1959.
Getting the military to turn less Fidelista was easy. Raúl has been the head of the military since the start of the revolution, and, as the person in charge of most appointments, he always had their loyalty assured. He also always ensured that the military remained more business-savvy (and thus, less fearful of American capitalism) than the average Cuban communist.
Getting the Communist Party to turn more Raulista took more time. But Raúl might have realized that the job is finally done. A series of internal reforms in the party, leadership purges, party congresses, and key appointments in the cabinet since he took the presidency from his brother in 2008 appears to have changed at least the loyalty, if not the ideological orientation, of the party leaders.
So Raúl today has military and party support, even if the economy he presides over is sinking. This combination of economic desperation and political confidence is the basis for international relations risk-taking. Raúl faces the incentives to seek a rapprochement with the United States — to save the economy — but he is also free from the fear, typical of Fidel, that U.S. influence will overwhelm Cuba’s ruling institutions. In other words, whereas the United States is betting that the normalization will expedite political change in Cuba, Raúl is betting on the exact opposite: normalization will trigger no political change.
From the United States, what has changed is the formation of an odd coalition of conservatives and progressives on the Cuba question. Americans are used to the idea that U.S. politics are irremediably polarized, so it might come as a surprise to non-experts that on the question of the Cuban embargo, poles have sort of converged.
Historically, the lobby in favor of lifting the embargo was mostly made up of progressives. But since the 2000s, as the United States began to allow trade with Cuba in some areas, important business groups in the United States became increasingly interested in seeking profits from the island. For example, the Farmers Education Cooperative Union of America lobbied for the passage of the U.S.-Cuba Normalization Act of 2013 (H.R. 1983). The USA Rice Federation lobbied for normalized trade regulations with Cuba. Caterpillar Inc., the world’s leading manufacturer of machinery and engines for construction and mining, lobbied for passage of the Free Trade with Cuba Act (H.R. 872). The American Society of Travel Agents also lobbied for more travel to Cuba last year. And the cruise-ship lobby, the ports lobby, and Wall Street have also all argued hard and insistently on behalf of normalization.
At the same time, the Cuban-American lobby, which in the past contained some of the loudest voices speaking out against renewing contact, has split, with a new wing eager to normalize relations. The main drivers are Cubans, themselves: namely those who arrived in the United States more recently and maintain closer ties with friends and family back home. They want greater facilities to travel and to send remittances back to Cuba. The earlier generation of Cuban immigrants, many of whose families left shortly after the Communists took power, wanted to see the island isolated until the government fell.
Remarkably, an important group in this conservative, pro-normalization coalition has been organized religion. The conservative evangelical lobby, a key constituency of the GOP, is fully behind normalization. Christian Conservatives look with envy the fact that the Vatican has negotiated with the Cuban government a sort of monopoly over Christianity. (No organization enjoys more autonomy in Cuba than the Roman Catholic Church.) Protestants and Evangelicals in the United States want to end this and begin evangelizing. But they need the embargo to be lifted in order to make inroads into Cuba’s Christian market.
This diplomatic breakthrough in U.S.-Cuban relations could not have happened before but it is easy to understand why it happened now. From the point of view of Cuba, the breakthrough was possible due to the unusual situation of a government in economic desperation while simultaneously feeling cocky politically. From the point of view of the United States, the agreement was reached because this is one of those rare issues where polarization has abated. The president has ample support from both the left and the right.
Of course, there are constituencies outside of this pro-normalization coalition. Human rights advocates worry that normalization may neither advance democracy nor bring to justice those who have perpetrated human rights abuses in Cuba. Some U.S. conservatives worry that the United States will not gain as much as Cuba will from improved relations. Others worry that the Congress is being left behind in the policy-making process. But Obama has one major message to these outsiders: On this issue, he has majority support, and this support comes from all quarters of the political spectrum. There are very few other issues, in domestic or foreign policy, where Obama can make a similar claim.
And there’s one last reason Obama and Castro were able to shake up relations right now: neither is facing re-election. Obama’s term ends in 2017, Castro’s in 2018. That means that if there’s any risk in what they are doing, it will be others who will bear the consequences.