The rapprochement between Cuba and the United States has gone better than anyone might have expected since the plan to normalise relations was announced in December 2014, writes Dr Joseph S. Tulchin.
US President Barack Obama met Cuba’s President Raul Castro at the seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama in April 2015 and both considered it a success. The Obama administration told Congress it would remove Cuba from the list of countries promoting or supporting terrorism, a step Cuba insisted must precede normalisation.
The senior Cuban-American in the US Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, former chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Relations, said there would be no organised opposition to the president’s decision. This was a stunning admission - that the majority in her own party would not follow her in undermining the president’s initiative with Cuba.
Days later, Raul Castro said the two countries would now appoint ambassadors to conduct relations between them. The Obama administration then issued licences for ferry services between the US and Cuba. Finally, as if to add to the celebrations, the Minnesota Orchestra arrived in Havana to give concerts, master-classes for Cuban music students, and to be treated like visiting royalty. Now, the Cubans are invited to play in Minneapolis. The honeymoon goes on.
Now comes the hard part.
The Cuban government has made a calculated gamble in accepting America’s diplomatic embrace. Given the dramatic collapse of Venezuela’s economy, Cuba has to accelerate economic reforms introduced over the past few years. Now, the central dilemma for the regime is how to increase the supply of goods and services for the Cuban people while maintaining political control to preserve the single party state with its official ideology and rigid adherence to the ideals of the Cuban revolution.
Cuban economists cite the Vietnam and Chinese models as guides for the opening. But neither of those countries is 90 miles from the US with its community of exiles eager to play a role in the transition on the island.
Just take one example of how market opening complicates political control. Airbnb, one of the marvels of the online globalised economy, is already booking business in Cuba, claiming more than 10,000 requests for rooms in Cuba. The problem for Airbnb is that their business transactions require internet connections which are extremely limited in Cuba. And, unlimited internet access can be a political problem for an authoritarian government.
In the short run, the Cuban government’s balancing act should succeed. Pressure from business in the US and Europe is sufficient to provide Cuba with the trade and investment it desperately needs.
Political apathy among the younger generation of Cubans will help the government maintain political control as it provides more goods and services to the population. The huge role of the armed forces in the economy will enhance the regime’s control over the economic transition while the power of the party in the countryside, strengthened by recent decentralisation, will help keep the lid on political dissent.
In the long run, it will be impossible for the regime to maintain the same level of control. Once the Castro brothers have gone, the party and the army will play significant roles in negotiating a political transition in which opposition is tolerated and debate over the island’s future can be conducted in the open - with the Miami exile community eager to participate.
For the moment, the iconic gains of the revolution are supported by a significant majority of Cuba’s population. How long that support lasts will depend, in part, on the success of the economic opening and partly on the cooperation of the next administration in Washington.