Curating the Cuban transition

During his recent visit to Cuba, President Barack Obama drew criticism in some quarters for attending a baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team in the immediate aftermath recent terrorist attacks in Brussels. Another case of those claiming to be serious about combating terrorism agitating to deliver the terrorists’ desired response. By now it should be clear to anybody that terrorist outrages are not so much about the carnage inflicted in murderous acts, but what they are designed to provoke. Namely that targeted countries will abandon their professed principles, sacrifice civil liberties and persecute religious minorities, thereby upholding the Wahhabist rhetoric that Islamist terrorism draws on.

My view is that Obama was perfectly correct to resist disruption to his schedule. And this visit to Cuba was important. There is a great temptation, in fact, to view it as an historic moment. Taken in isolation, it represents another vindication of Obama’s advocacy for diplomatic solutions to longstanding impasses. Following on from the Iran nuclear deal, itself a riposte to the pernicious mindset common to the foreign policy professionals in Washington, it suggests the possibility of a benign and constructive path for future American engagement with the world – the potential for a grim outcome to this ongoing election campaign notwithstanding.

Obama’s Cuba visit will hopefully mark the calling of time on the bone-headed hostility and unwarranted belligerence the US has displayed over many decades towards a country that hasn’t posed any kind of a national security threat since the end of the Cold War. Though for some of America’s foreign policy elite, Cuba’s defiance and independent path, which have won the communist outpost many admirers around the world, is threat enough. However, while it is tempting to be persuaded by Cuba’s achievements in areas such as healthcare in spite of economic embargo, one shouldn’t be shouldn’t be misty-eyed about the place. There are too many political prisoners, too many curtailments of civil and political rights, to allow oneself to be seduced and beguiled by a sense of communist nostalgia.

Obama’s visit will add to the pressures on Cuba to engage further with the world and open up its economy to some degree. And it is hard to deny that Cuba would be helped enormously by doing so. Though for many of a left-liberal internationalist persuasion, there is a feeling of pre-emptive sorrow at the thought of Cuba becoming transformed, that it might become tacky and cheapened by the intrusion of gaudy commerce. I’ll admit it is here where I have certain – though I stress limited – sympathies with the nostalgists. But it’s important to remember Havana was a culturally vibrant place before the revolution, and it will surely continue to be, whatever path Cuba takes over the coming decades. And one would further hope the architecture will be spruced up rather than razed overnight.

While Cuba’s opening up is apparently inevitable and broadly to be welcomed, it should be conceded that the envisaged ending of the US embargo does bring with it certain dangers. The homogenisation of city centres in capitalist societies is a blight that rightly gets laid at the door of neoliberalism, so I offer a suggestion to make Cuba’s economic transition a whole lot more palatable. I think most people would agree it would be whole lot better if we could arrange for two companies in particular to be barred from ever trading in the country. To McDonalds and Starbucks, I say get thee away, and let the rest of us hope that a tasteful form of enterprise can be brought to Cuba.


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