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CUBA
The long road to normalizing relations with the United States
Orsetta Bellani
7/23/2015
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Cuban government demands to the United States the lift of the economic blockade and close the military base in Guantanamo Bay.

Daniel López drives his 1984 Polish car on the open streets of Havana. He doesn’t take his eyes off the road and talks about that issue that the entire population in Cuba is talking about: the official restoration of diplomatic relations with the United States on July 20, after 54 years of severed ties.

“I think, what US President Barack Obama wants is to enter Cuba to overthrow the regime from within,” notes the young man. López recognizes Cuba’s achievements in health, education and security, but he complains about his salary as a nurse, which forces him to work in a second job as an informal taxi driver.

“I don’t think that with the opening to the United States will be a real improvement in our salaries, but certainly more tourists will arrive,” he says.

Since the restoration of diplomatic relations was announced in December 2014, the rate of US citizens traveling to Cuba increased by 36 percent compared to the previous year, and sea and air communications also resumed. The projections for the Cuban economy are optimistic. In the first quarter of 2015, the GDP growth was estimated to have reached 4 percent, whereas last year it only reached 1.3 percent in the same period.

Cuba and the United States already reactivated their diplomatic relations, but much still remains to normalize the situation. “Only the removal of the economic, commercial and financial blockade that deprives and causes so much damage to our people, the return of occupied territory in Guantanamo Bay and respect for the sovereignty of Cuba will give meaning to the historical act that we are living today,” said Cuban Foreign Affairs Minister Bruno Rodríguez, during the reopening ceremony of the Cuban embassy in Washington.
 
Outstanding issues
The road to normalization of relations seems long and steep as there is no public debate in the United States about returning to Cuba the territory where the Guantanamo Bay military base is located. Also, the lifting of the trade embargo is far from being approved, although 59 percent of Americans are in favor of lifting it.

“In the United States there are groups of companies being created that are supporting the dismantling of the blockade”, explains Isbel Díaz, of the Cuban Critical Observatory, to Latinamerica Press. “Obviously they don’t do it because of solidarity or humanitarian reasons, but because they have economic interests. Almost all of -these companies work in agribusiness and are linked to genetically modified organisms. Cuba would be a virgin market for that.”

Alfonso, a 75 year old Castro follower who asked to not be identified by last name and who in his youth participated in the battle of Playa Girón (1961), sees Obama’s decision to restore ties as an admission of failure of the United States policy towards Cuba, but also a threat to his government. “The United States will not stop fighting against the Cuban government. They will do as they have always done: in a cover way,” he says.

Alfonso’s daughter migrated to the United States 10 years ago. His wife Teresa travels yearly to visit her, and, unlike Alfonso, she has high hopes regarding the possible entry of US companies into the country. “I hope they come and bring development. Does the entry of capitalism make me afraid? No, since it already exists in Cuba and the restoration of relations with the United States is only a step in this direction.”

There are many foreign investors already operating in Cuba. The Cuban Foreign Investment Act of 2014 allows the existence of joint ventures (51 percent of the total) and totally foreign capital (4 percent of the total). The law also created a Special Development Area of 168 square miles, in the port of Mariel, about 30 miles from Havana, where companies can operate tax and customs facilities.
 
Economic opening
This is just one more of the laws since the 1990s that have led to the gradual opening of the Cuban economy that until about 30 years ago was totally controlled by the state. The fall of the Soviet Union and its lack of support for the island pushed Cuba into a deep crisis, which forced the government of Fidel Castro (1959-2008) to impose the so-called Special Period which meant severe restrictions on the supply of basic commodities, and later to the government of Raúl Castro to push some economic reforms starting in 2008 when he assumed the presidency.

“More than reforms, these are updates to the Cuban economic model. At the time when all private property was abolished, a mistake was made,” Leonel González of the civil association Martin Luther King Center in Havana, told Latinamerica Press. “Now they want to unload the enormous weight that state has for dealing with everything, with every coffee shop or shoe shine stand. The socialist character of a country is not determined by the small economy, but by the fact that the media and the country’s major programs are at the hands of the State, under its control and supervision”.

A question that Cuban society today is asking is whether control of the key means of production by the State corresponds to a kind of socialism or capitalism.

“Cuba is building a capitalist society similar to China and Vietnam, with all the freedoms in terms of trade and investment, but without the ‘freedoms’ of European democracies, and with a single party,” said Diaz to Latinamerica Press.
—Latinamerica Press.


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“Faithful to our history”, as printed on the wall, the Cuban people will continue to demand the elimination of the economic blockade. (Photo: Orsetta Bellani)
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