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A View on Cuba’s Opening From the De Facto US Colony of Puerto Rico

The hard questions of the Obam-apertura.

San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Photo: Ard Hesselink)

Cuba y Puerto Rico son / Cuba and Puerto Rico are
De un pájaro dos alas / Two wings of the same bird
Reciben flores y balas / They receive flowers and bullets
Sobre el mismo corazón / With the same heart
—Lola Rodríguez de Tío

The “momentous” yet seemingly long-planned announcement that the United States and Cuba have agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations was an odd end to a chaotic year of crises and strife. From the summer of renewed violence in Gaza and the surge of unaccompanied children on the Mexican border to the anguish of Mike Brown/Ferguson and Eric Garner/Staten Island and the disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, there seemed to be no end to conflagrations of long-stirring conflicts that expose the myth of American exceptionalism. The cost of freedom in the first-est of First Worlds that we live in is the increasing precariousness of life outside our borders—a carnage that is often not connected to our comfort, yet is a result of the burgeoning inequality created by the gospel of globalization. Yet now, perhaps one of the sorest points of contention in the hemisphere, the 50-year U.S.-imposed embargo of Cuba, is finally being acknowledged as a mistake.

But what will come now, with the embargo still largely in place? Even as talking heads and pundits from MSNBC to Fox News, Breitbart to The Nation, are weighing in on the political and economic fallout of the rapprochement between Barack and Raúl–one that may yet culminate in the tearing down of the commercial wall between free-trade capitalism and the socialist experiment of the United States’s closer-than-close neighbor—there is uncertainty and confusion about what it all means. That’s why today, on holiday in my second home, the unincorporated island territory, de facto colony, and imaginary nation of Puerto Rico, I’m going to engage not in a North-South cloud of speculation, but a Caribbean sea of questions from one eastern wing of this archipelagic bird to its western other.

The advent of Obam-apertura, the great “opening” that the U.S. neoliberal narrative holds as a form of liberation for a suffering people, is also something its internal corporate banking cabal sees as a way to recapture a lost market. While there is much to celebrate as a victory for the Cuban people—the release of the remaining members of the Cuban Five, for example—the opening creates the possibility of a sudden windfall of previously unexploited consumers and a workforce accustomed to even lower wages that are foisted on places like Mexico, India, and Vietnam. For an American economy that has been largely stagnant—aside from a recent spurt sparked by falling gas prices and temporary holiday season hires—the opening up of Cuba has the look of a last-ditch opportunity to stave off looming worldwide economic disaster. And for a president reeling from bad press—even his accomplishments are neutered by right-wing media’s echo chamber—and a disastrous midterm election, it serves as an instant legacy-making machine, like Nixon’s engagement of China and Reagan’s hollow triumph over the Soviet Union. Much has also been said about how the move seeks to repair relations with the rest of Latin America, which had decided to invite Cuba to the next Summit of the Americas despite U.S. opposition.

The implications for U.S. politics are striking, of course. In one fell swoop, Obama has defused several attacks from a triumphant Republican Party gearing itself up to attempt to end Obamacare, impeach him for his executive action on immigration reform, and otherwise gum up the works with threats of closing down the federal government again. He has placed several of his most hysterical critics–notably the increasingly apoplectic Cuban-American senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio–on the wrong side of the issue, hurt Jeb Bush’s chances at a presidential run and possibly destroyed the Republican strategy of winning the presidency through Florida (remember the hanging chads of 2000?). The home base of rabid anti-Communism that Republicans have been banking on since Reagan won in 1980 has begun to crumble on its own, as Democratic-leaning Puerto Ricans have begun to populating the Orlando area and successive Cuban American generations have become more moderate. But this now may be the death blow. Obama’s Latino-friendly moves have already made him the “First Latino President” in Politico’s eyes, anyway, further damaging the Republican brand.

Yet as much as this has all the earmarks of a shrewd Obama move, this is clearly not just about politics. Despite their denials, The New York Times editorial board seems to have been in on this whole scheme, having published a series of editorials beginning in October calling for normalization of relations with Cuba. While on record with The Washington Post as denying any advance knowledge, the shocking speed of their carefully crafted narrative about the secret talks, the “18 months of furtive diplomacy,” had the feel of those notorious Times obituaries—prepared sometimes months in advance—when famous figures who have long suffered health problems finally pass away. Deriving their agenda from neoliberal economists who see Cuba’s ultimate goal as transitioning away from communism and into the global capitalist economy, the Council on Foreign Relations has had Latin America expert Julia Sweig speculating on “Cuba After Communism” for quite some time. Could it be that an institution that lists Nicaraguan Contra pal Elliot Abrams as an “expert” and Citibank/Goldman Sachs hedge fund king Robert Rubin on its board might be part of a broader neoliberal agenda to put Obam-apertura on the front burner?

All of this was presaged, of course by Raúl’s 2013 relaxation of Cuba’s migration laws, neoliberal-esque shrinking of government employment rolls, and allowing a limited expansion of small businesses. These policy changes were more bold than this December’s rapprochement, but received considerably less attention in the mainstream press. Yet as Castro tried to structurally change the Cuban economy, the United States is completely unwilling to change course from its orgy of deregulation of finance capital transactions, despite the fact that it continues to go down the road of freewheeling high-risk banking and investment activity as its main profit-making engine. On December 14, three days before Obama’s announcement, a Times Op-Ed, entitled “Cuba’s Economy at a Crossroads,” argued that “Cubans, who have been subjected for decades to a centrally planned economy that is among the world’s most dysfunctional.” But was it really more dysfunctional than an economy like that of the United States, stripped of governmental regulation and with a banking system turned into a high-stakes gambling casino? And how “functional” do Obama and the U.S. economy look when two days later, December 16, Obama signs a spending bill that rolls back banking regulations and allows a return to the corrosive banking practices that caused the 2008 recession in the first place?

Clearly, the Cuban revolution is far from perfect. A different kind of class system, based around party membership rather than material wealth is as ossified as ever, and a new “minority” class of those who have prospered through outsized remittances and involvement in licensed small business have intensified resentment from below as well as eroded the social contract of Cuba’s socialist egalitarianism. Black Cubans have not benefitted as much as lighter-skinned Cubans and there is persecution of dissidents and a raft of political prisoners. While freedom of expression is clearly limited in ways not typical of capitalist democracies, isn’t Cuba an example of how state control is just more overt, not carefully concealed by being funneled through market forces? In the “free” world we have plenty of political prisoners, and the captivity of pro-independence leader Oscar López Rivera—whom Telesur is claiming is the subject of negotiations for imminent release, in another Obama-the-Latino-president gambit—is a sore point for Puerto Ricans.

In Cuba, the Internet is largely unavailable and media is tightly controlled; in the United States we have censorship through market forces, which rarely promote art and culture with progressive political content, and media that elide many stories that conflict with the agenda of corporate ownership. We have a simultaneously sophisticated and crude way of policing ourselves—depending on what neighborhood we live in–and unlike Cuba, we don’t have a sustained commitment to public education, medicine, and the cultural expressions of non-elite communities. Perhaps most disappointing is the fact that in public discourse it is almost impossible to have serious discussions about economic systems that are alternatives to free-market capitalism.

If we did have those sort of discussions, we would be able to see that the future of Cuba is not just about how its tentative annexation into the free trade zones the United States seeks to establish across the hemisphere will affect foreign investment and local consumption patterns. That is, ask not how you can become a tourist in Varadero or sell tractors there—ask how Cubans themselves will balance their desire for more access to goods and material wealth with their desire to preserve the social safety net that free-market capitalists hope to make a distant memory by mid-century. Ask, how much further can Cubans seek to democratize their own workplace, create decision-making space and establish autonomy from party ideology as their aging, as Cuba’s sluggish state framework makes concessions to neoliberism?

These are questions that Puerto Ricans might want to ask about Cuba, since, as Lola Rodríguez de Tío, proto-feminist and fierce nationalist suggested in her 1893 poem, “A Cuba” (For Cuba) we are two wings of the same bird. While pouring through the various analyses of the Cuban economy over the last two weeks I noticed a few similarities between the two islands. Both—although Cuba seems to be far ahead in this project—are pushing major new seaports in the hopes of handling shipping commerce between the United States, Europe and Latin America; both feature an aging population whose needs will be a major consideration in future budget projections; and both, unlike state capitalist model China, have economies heavily centered on services rather than manufacturing.

Yet Puerto Rico and Cuba might also represent two widely divergent historical points on the free-trade timeline. Puerto Rico–whose agricultural economy was gutted to create a light-manufacturing model in the 1950s that featured a hefty dose of external investment capital–was a dry run for free-trade policies like NAFTA. U.S. corporations experimented with off-shore operations using a non-English-speaking, lower-wage work force in Puerto Rico long before Burger Kings and Walmarts invaded Mexico. It was the vastly lower wages that U.S. corporations found in Mexico after NAFTA that helped spin Puerto Rico into its current debilitating fiscal crisis, one immeasurably worsened by a toxic package of credit default swaps cleverly manipulated by, among others, Robert Rubin’s old shop, Goldman Sachs.

While in the short run, Cuban wages are so low that Cuba’s immediate entry into the global capitalist economy could even raise them. But in the long run, what would Cuba lose by submitting itself to the neoliberal plan? Puerto Rico, and other economies that have bought into the foreign investment, export-driven model ultimately see most of the wealth they create getting sucked into predatory banking structures, and their governments forced to go into debt to provide basic services. By 2012, the ratio of government debt to the island’s GNP rose to 100.6%. Now at around $73 billion, Puerto Rico’s debt has become the obscure object of desire for hedge funds, whose mom and pop investors are more concerned with the fate of their 401Ks than the island’s slowly declining and increasingly poor population.

If Cuba were to take a deep breath and look at what’s happened to an island it has shared such a deep history with—going back as far as the late nineteenth century when leaders of Cuban and Puerto Rican independence movements met in New York and designed flags that were each other’s inverse—and if Cuba were to see Puerto Rico as the beginning of the free-trade economic era we’re living in now, it would have to ask itself, are we the end game? I have faith they are already ahead of this game. No doubt the Cuban people, who are well versed in discussions of production and consumption, of capitalism, socialism, and workplace democracy, will know what’s at stake and find a way to make Obam-apertura work for them.