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Seeking détente with the US, the Cuban regime strives to generate a smokescreen of progress

The reconciliation that is really required, urgently, is between the Cuban state and the Cuban people. The blockade that truly needs to be lifted is internal.

Miguel Díaz-Canel laughs while dining with Barack Obama in Cuba in 2016.
Miguel Díaz-Canel laughs while dining with Barack Obama in Cuba in 2016. NBC News

As expected, the Cuban regime fired up its propaganda machine to force a second diplomatic thaw with the United States government. Its precarious financial situation, plus the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, have pushed the country towards the edge of an abyss. These are the main reasons for its desperate strategic maneuvering in search of any succor that will allow it to avert social unrest if the country's situation does not improve in the short term.

In the last three days, three events have occurred prompting and shaping a new strategy to force possible rapprochement with the Biden Administration:

1. A feigned lifting of the internal blockade on citizens: The elimination of the list of "self-employment activities" to allow the private exercise of more than 2,000, included on Cuba's National Classifier of Economic Activities. This, however, lacked any details about taxes, or the right to legally register businesses; and did not clarify whether direct foreign investments could be received, exported and imported; or if there will be wholesale markets. Also not disclosed were the limits to which entrepreneurs will be subject under the future SMEs law that was drafted more than nine months ago and that the Cuban Government has kept strictly confidential. Nobody is going to back down before seeing whether the others will settle for the first crumb conceded.

2. A purported renewal of cooperation in the fight against terrorism: The communiqué from the Government of Cuba to the Government of Colombia, on Monday afternoon, about a possible attack planned by the National Liberation Army (ELN).

3. Alleged demands voiced by the Cuban people to lift the sanctions and the embargo: the complaints and accusations against the United States for all the ills that the population is suffering - omitting all reference to those who provoked them in Cuba - filled a letter published by La Joven Cuba signed by a disparate group, including spies, influential agents, opportunists, and naive individuals acting in good faith. There are also a few academics who, after taking courageous positions, were attacked by the Taliban's new repressive wave, and who would have been sullied as pro-American if they had refused to sign it. In the letter there is not a single word about all those who, for several years, sabotaged Obama's policy towards Cuba. And now they are asking to restore it? This requires us to first face the truth and say it out loud, without sugarcoating or distorting it. The main cause of the social and economic crisis that citizens are enduring today, including many of the signatories of that letter, was not the work of the United States, but rather of the mafia in power that they chose not to mention. It is curious that they were able to deliver the letter to the United States Embassy in Cuba and to the White House (!) without incident, before, during or afterwards. Can those who signed that letter imagine what would have happened if the San Isidro or 27N movements, or Cuban peasants, had tried to do the same kind of thing? The commotion, the violence, and the legal proceedings?

A feigned lifting of the internal blockade on citizens

When the Granma newspaper announced, on February 6, through the Minister of Labor and Social Security, Marta Elena Feito Cabrera, that the list containing the 127 activities currently approved for self-employment was to be eliminated, and that the exercise of self-employment would be allowed in more than 2,000 activities included on Cuba's National Classifier of Economic Activities, with the exception of a list of 124, several press agencies covered the news as something significant for its novelty. In fact, some supposed experts in Cuban economics described the announcement as something truly promising.

In reality, it is nothing more than that: an announcement to spark illusory hopes. It should suffice to recall that in 2008, when the dictator Raúl Castro permitted stays in hotels, the purchase of computers and DVDs, and other appliances until then prohibited to Cubans, plus access to cell phone services, he was not implementing a structural reform of the economy, but rather allowing Cubans to access services that were widespread and normal all over the world. Was there anything novel about that? Absolutely not. Cubans were simply regaining some citizens' rights that had been denied them for many years.

Is allowing self-employment in more than 2,000 activities included on the National Classifier of Economic Activities, then, a groundbreaking act by the Cuban government? Absolutely not.

This is a measure devised and executed to send the message to the White House that they are ready to open up the economy. This measure does not constitute systemic reform, nor does it rescind the policy of barring wealth creation, rather than reducing poverty. It has nothing to do with creating a market economy, as, by definition, it is a state regulation of economic activity.

The debate on rapprochement with the Cuban government and the lifting of the embargo is a false dilemma. The Cuban conflict is internal  between an oppressive regime, and a people who reject it, not between Cuba and the United States. Cuba's powerholding elite was responsible for internationalizing this internal conflict, by allying itself with the USSR, then Russia, and then China and Venezuela.

What keeps Cuban civil society from prospering is not the sanctions imposed by the United States on the Cuban State, but rather the elite's strangling of civil society's freedoms (political and economic), which prevents the country from flourishing. Civil society's independent economic activity  is not precluded by the Helms Burton Law, but rather by the Cuban State.

Alleged cooperation in the fight against terrorism

Is the Cuban Embassy's gesture of assistance to the Government of Colombia, advising it of an alleged attack, an act of good faith? Absolutely not.

In reality, it is a calculated ploy to begin its lobbying in Washington to get Cuba off the list of countries that support terrorism. Being on that list largely hamstrings the Biden Administration when it comes to lifting some of the restrictions imposed by the previous one.

Havana has been reluctant to extradite 10 leaders of the National Liberation Army who may have been involved in the January 2019 attack on the General Santander Police Academy, in which 22 cadets lost their lives and more than 90 were injured. They have justified their refusal by pointing to peace agreements they have signed on the island preventing them from doing so. Do these signed agreements really grant impunity to those who, from Havana, planned or were apprised of this terrorist action that massacred innocent people?

A few days ago, the Colombian magazine Semana published a secret dossier on Cuba's  strategy of improper interference in Colombia. The document warns that Cuba harbors plans to interfere in the 2022 elections and destabilize the country. This would suggest that Havana's sudden cozying up to the Government of Colombia to report an impending attack is pure window dressing. In reality, nothing has changed.

Proof of this is that the meddling by Cuba's intelligence services in Venezuela continues. It has prevented the fall of Nicolás Maduro and bolstered a narco-dictatorship responsible for the greatest humanitarian crisis ever seen in South America, with around five million Venezuelans displaced, even as it works together towards regional destabilization, to weaken democracy in Latin America and to strengthen anti-US governments in other countries in the region.

All of these factors are aspects that the Biden Administration must carefully consider before taking any steps toward a new relationship with Cuba's military higher-ups.

Alleged demands voiced by the Cuban people to lift the sanctions and the embargo

The letter published on the La Joven Cuba website omits everything that happened from 2015 to the present and the events during this period that damaged relations between the two governments and led to the end of rapprochement.

To be clear: the Cuban government did not take advantage of Barack Obama's amicable overtures, demonstrating that its mentality was still mired in the Cold War. The octogenarians in power demonstrated that they were unprepared for change. As soon as Obama boarded Air Force One bound for the US after his historic visit to Havana, the regime froze reform, lashed out in the press against the US president's policy towards Cuba, renewed its economic and police harassment of self-employed workers, put an end to the approval of new non-agricultural cooperatives, began to demonize entrepreneurs in the press, ratcheted up repression against opponents and dissidents, and initiated "sonic attacks" on US and Canadian diplomats.

Abruptly, unilaterally, after the embassies were reopened, the regime initiated an accelerated regression in relations with Washington. Nor did it honor its commitments to creditors who, thanks to President Obama's new policy, had canceled and restructured their debts. The current president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, actually stated that Obama's approach was a "Trojan Horse" to destroy the Revolution.

If the White House and the State Department assumed that Cuban leaders would be glad to see waves of US businessmen and US officials visiting the island as a result of rapprochement, they were wrong. An audio recording from a meeting in the middle of the thaw, leaked years later to the press in Florida, revealed this. In the recording an official is clearly heard indicating that the country's leadership was alarmed by the massive presence of Americans, and instructing senior officials of multiple economic, academic and political institutions to ask for permission before welcoming any visitors. No one was to allow them access to Cuban institutions, or meet with any of them without first reporting these requests and receiving express authorization to do so.

For both the General Intelligence Directorate (DGI) and the National Counterintelligence Directorate (DGCI), the important thing was not the economic development and well-being that these visits might bring to Cuba, but rather controlling the circumstances of those exchanges or preventing them altogether. The criteria and procedures of the secret police - not only those of the administrative bureaucracy - explain the limitations on the exchanges, as well as the protracted process involved for the evaluation and approval of visitors' business proposals.

It is also a curious coincidence that it was right after this expression, by officials and police, of anxiety and discomfort at the large number of diplomats accredited at the recently opened United States Embassy, that "sonic attacks" were initiated against the personnel there. The impact on their health eventually forced the evacuation of more than two 20 diplomats and their families. Under the Trump presidency, which began with a statement that it did not want to sever bilateral relations, but rather to renegotiate their terms, the attacks escalated, leading to the indefinite interruption of the operations of that diplomatic facility in Havana, and precipitating an open confrontation between the two governments.

As a commercial assessment of the "thaw", after receiving thousands of visitors and business proposals, the Government of Cuba approved less than 100. Not many of them did very well, either.

The opportunities squandered during the diplomatic thaw demonstrated that the Cuban Government had no interest in implementing reform that would benefit the people. The objective was for the United States to urge all the countries with which Havana had debts to cancel them, to invest in the island, and to promote American tourism  so that the military who control that sector would obtain fat profits off the rise in travel to Cuba. Part of the scheme was the regime's assumption that the United States would relax restrictions on sending remittances, which were to be one of its main lines of financing, at the expense of the Cuban diaspora. Part of the resources obtained from the rapprochement process and the creditors were used to reinforce Cuba's internal repression apparatus.

Why don't the signatories of that letter send one addressed to Raúl Castro and Díaz-Canel, asking them to unconditionally lift the internal blockade, and allow citizens to generate wealth in a society enjoying a free market and unregulated prices? Why don't the signatories of that letter send one addressed to Raúl Castro and Díaz Canel demanding freedom of expression, human rights, and free association? Why don't they hold him accountable for ignoring the red carpet that Obama laid out for them long before Trump was elected?

The war that exists today is the one waged by the state against its own citizens and their civil and economic initiatives. The reconciliation that is really required, urgently, is between the Cuban State and the Cuban people. The blockade that needs to be lifted is the internal one, of the government against the private sector and citizens.

The elite in power, if they are really interested in improving the bilateral relationship with the United States, must put an end, on paper and in reality, to the suppression of basic civil liberties, and unconditionally lift its internal blockade on the country's citizens and productive forces.

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