Viernes, 20 de Septiembre de 2019
Última actualización: 18:50 CEST

'The Cuban government does not know how to deal with soft power'

Manuel Cuesta Morúa at the White House. (DDC, Washington)

On 5 December dissenter Manuel Cuesta Morúa was honored for his democratic ideas at the Wilson Center, a political studies entity in Washington. Morúa, who was arrested on multiple occasions for defending human rights and organizing meetings with the opposition in Havana, currently coordinates the #Otro18 Citizen Platform, dedicated to electoral reform in Cuba, and belongs to the Democratic Action Unity Board.

During his stay in Washington, he spoke with DIARIO DE CUBA about relations between Cuba and US following the death of Fidel Castro and the election of Donald Trump.

A few days ago Mr. Morúa met with Mark B. Feierstein, Special Advisor to President Obama on the Western Hemisphere, at the White House. What was discussed at the meeting?

The conversation, which was lengthy, addressed five issues, all of them crucial in the immediate future.

First, we talked about the general outlook with regards to relations between Cuba and United States under the Trump Administration. The uncertainty of what will happen and the main lines of his policies towards Cuba, beyond what he has said in 140 characters. The new aspect here, as a political fact, is that this is not a conventional Republican administration, but rather a candidate who portrayed himself as anti-establishment. So, we will have to wait and see.

Second, we talked about the Obama Administration's legacy in Cuba, whose core concept has been to promote a new, more complex approach in order to foster, in parallel, the democratization of Cuba and a respect for human rights, its integration into the community of nations in the Americas, and its economic modernization through what is conceived as the empowerment of civil society.

Don't you see clear signals of what is to come, in terms of US policy towards Cuba and Obama's legacy, in Trump's statements, calling Castro a "brutal dictator" and the appointment of hardline Cuban Americans to the transition team?

If something characterizes Trump it his shifting rhetoric. He can say what he believes it is necessary to say, without that compromising his possible actions. Paying lip service is only natural when he has received support from voters. The US elections and Fidel Castro’s death came in quick succession. In any case, judging the new president-elect by his words and tweets, it is clear that we could be returning to the rhetoric of the Cold War, which would be comfortable and structural for the Cuban regime.

I would like to add, however, that the policy of the United States is impacted by geostrategic interests that are going to mitigate those hard lines of action. And it is also shaped by geopolitical commitments: if you're my friend's friend, you don't necessarily have to be my enemy. Trump is a friend of Putin, and Putin is a friend of Raúl Castro. Will Trump necessarily become an enemy? Putin is the best protector that Castro II could have within the new global network of successful authoritarianisms. This, once again, exposes the problem that has been dragging on for more than a century: the incapacity of our political classes to chart a strategic course in the international arena. 

What other subjects were touched on at the White House?

We talked about the possibility of forging a bipartisan coalition against the embargo while at the same time continuing to support and provide pro-democracy Cubans with visibility, and working with the incoming administration on the basis of mutual national security interests, which is something that matters to the public. It is interesting to see the 52 votes in the US Senate in favor of lifting the prohibition on Americans travelling to Cuba, a point on a larger agenda affecting the interests of broad business sectors who clearly see the futility of the embargo for all the interests involved, including the issue of Cuban democratization.

Another point addressed, related to the previous one, was how difficult it will be to make a 180-degree turn from the policy initiated by the outgoing administration. Despite Cuba's sluggish reaction to the changes, economic relationships have already been established.

The economic links might be less important than they seem to be. For now, there has not been one major American investment on the island. Cruise lines and hotels charge in the US and are not investments.

Everything is very fluid. There are not yet any investments, but economic ties could play an important commercial role. I am not certain that these commercial ties will decline under Trump. Their reduction or enlargement depend on the Cuban government, not necessarily on Trump. The commercial ties did not actually begin with Obama, but with Bush. Obama expanded and expedited them, establishing exemptions within a more open and constructive approach based on engagement.

It remains to be seen whether Trump will reverse a policy actually implemented by the Republicans, on whose support he needs to govern with some degree of success. Which takes me to another point. The commercial interests pushing the most to maintain and expand their links with Cuba are represented by the most conservative Republicans. Let's say that the economic interests on the Democratic side, involving new Information and Communication Technologies, and part of the financial sector, are not in as big a hurry to negotiate with Cuba. The latter demand deeper structural reform in order to operate securely in our country. Thus, economically speaking, Trump will not make a big difference. Add to this a closing quote I published in Argentina’s El Clarin: Trump could be interested in some buildings in Havana. This is closer to a serious fact than a joke. There is the data yielded by the economic survey undertaken by Trump representatives on the Island.

This relates to another issue which we addressed at the White House: the dangers of a return to the language of the Cold War after having tried soft power with the Cuban regime.

In a more general way, we also talked about how most Cubans and Americans believe in and support a continuation of Obama's policy and the need for permanent dialogue between Cuban civil society and the United States on human rights and political freedoms. The United States initiated a dialogue on human rights with the Cuban government, and that is a good thing. And it is necessary. After all, it is the regime that dishes out punishment, and has the strength to do so. Unfortunately. However, establishing and facilitating a formal and public dialogue on this matter between the US government and Cuban civil society, and between the civil societies of both countries, is crucial for the civic dimension of human rights. 

The contention that most Cuban Americans support Obama's policy may be true, but they also support the defense of human rights and the regime's fall, but they were never asked about this in those pre-election polls used to reinforce Obama's policy, and which led to an electoral fiasco for Democrats: the Cuban-American vote was overwhelmingly for Trump.

It's interesting. Most Cuban Americans want to take the game to the next level: more engagement and more support for the cause of human rights in Cuba. At the political level this reflects two key insights: supporting an opening by the US side does not have to mean a weakened commitment to the freedom of the Cuban people. Second: pre-Obama policies contributed little to bolstering (beyond the symbolic sphere, also important) the improvement of the human rights situation in Cuba. Said another way: one can work in favor of democracy in Cuba, not support the embargo, and seek other approaches. This can also be done in the United States.

Now, then, could the fact that Cuban-Americans voted overwhelmingly for Trump be understood to mean that Cubans in the United States want a return to the old politics? I don't think so. Internal factors in the US are more decisive in an election. And that includes Cuban voters, who are also American citizens. In any case, it is also important to consider other surveys in the analysis. In Miami-Dade most Cuban-Americans voted for Hillary, and at the national level too.

Just a few days ago the story broke that the US and Cuban governments were scrambling to negotiate agreements before Donald Trump's inauguration. How do you interpret this? What do you think the Cuban government is after?

On the one hand, the continuity of the dialogue initiated between both governments in multiple directions. I do not know whether these meetings corresponded to a previous schedule, or resulted from the turn of events in the United States after the elections on November 8. Whether a coincidence or not, I think that the Cuban government is trying to do in hours what it had time to do for at least two years: delve deeper into the game of economic interests and strengthen ties involving policies of global interest in such a way that a reversal or an attempted reversal by Washington comes at a strategic cost of such a magnitude that it deters those who decide these policies.

If so, we would be talking about an advantage of the Trump election: forcing the Cuban government to take the initiative.

Not to take the initiative, but to stop wasting time and act on what has been agreed to. That is, to follow through on commitments undertaken. This would mean opening the political game, which is how Trump's win aims to be redirected and read, and what we are talking about here is pure economics. The result, somewhat paradoxically, would be that Havana would open up to what seems most important to Trump: economic interests.

It is not the same to make decisions based on political or ideological positions than based on created economic and strategic interests. The Cuban government was among the first to congratulate Trump, but not because it was delighted to do so.

Why did the Cuban government squander the opportunity offered it by the Obama Administration, when it is now forced to rush?

First, because the Cuban government does not have a vision of state, but rather one of power. Its calculations are based on an immediate readings of the costs and benefits of a relationship to maintain its social control. As its frame of reference is in the short term, it measures everything in time. In the slow time of laziness, and a lack of political imagination. The more time for control, the better for power. The less, the worse.

Second, because they were surprised, as was I, by Trump's election. With Hillary, the time factor was under control. Although Clinton could have been tougher than Obama, her policy towards Cuba implied continuity, as can be read in her own statements and seen in the platform of the Democratic Party presented at its Convention in Philadelphia.

Third, due to its limited capacity for strategic forecasts: instead of advancing in a shifting field to strengthen positions, they were frozen, without realizing that, in the United States, as in almost every part of the world, governments change, which should meant a net gain, because nothing would bind them with the next government, and they would have won by pursuing deeper interests.

Fourth, due to inertia. Cuban diplomacy is very good at breaking consensuses, selling the product of the revolution, and speaking badly of its enemies. It is not as good at building strategic scenarios and moving within them.

And fifth, last but not least, because the Cuban government does not know how to deal with soft power. It breaks a thermometer, and tries to pick up the mercury off the floor. Obama did that: break the thermometer of the Cold War. And the Cuban government reacted in that way: a futile scramble to pick up the mercury. It then acted as if the thermometer were still intact. But Obama is on his way out.

Seen in perspective, and in view of what is necessary for a peaceful change, I still believe, however, that the best way to support the democratization of Cuba is through a combination of engagement and soft power.