On December 17, 2014, presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro made history by each taking a bold and politically brave step: They agreed to begin the process of normalizing relations between their two countries.
American and Cuban negotiators met secretly on multiple occasions over a surprisingly lengthy period before Dec. 17. These talks centered on a prisoner exchange that was necessary to clear the way forward.
The next step, which began this week with the arrival of a State Department delegation in Havana, will feature a very different conversation – one focused on a diplomatic process and held in the glare of the public eye. The two sides will aim to define which issues are necessary for progress, and they will set an agenda and a timetable.
The path to normalized relations will be challenging, and all the more so if the two sides do not fully understand each other.
The Cubans know a great deal about the United States and the tensions of its politics. They study their neighbor seriously.
Although there are some important exceptions, the United States is generally less informed about Cuba. This knowledge gap exists for a variety of reasons, including a hangover from Monroe Doctrine attitudes, which are characterized by relatively modest interest in the entire hemisphere, as well as limitations caused by the way official intelligence has been sculpted over decades by the agenda of a vocal and politically organized anti-Castro Cuban-American community.
If there exists an asymmetrical power dynamic, where the United States has supremacy in hard power, there is also an asymmetrical knowledge dynamic where the Cubans may be better prepared.
This knowledge gap results in traps into which the parties, and especially the American side, must avoid falling in order to realize the historic potential of the presidents’ decisions.
There are at least five such traps.
Ignorance of History
Rarely have I encountered a country where the understanding of its history is as critical to understanding its present as it is in Cuba.
Virtually all Cubans, regardless of generation, will follow these developments with a collective memory of an historical pattern of U.S. intervention in Cuban affairs. The Platt Amendment, drafted by the U.S. Congress and written into the Cuban Constitution in 1901, gave the United States the right to control and limit Cuba’s new independence, and to place military bases like Guantánamo Bay on Cuban soil. The four-year occupation of Cuba by the U.S. military from 1898–1902 left a legacy of insult to the Cuban mambí veterans who had fought for independence against Spain. And by the 1950s, American business owned about two-thirds of the Cuban economy, including most public utilities, and upwards of 80 percent of the fertile sugar lands.
Most of the foreign perspective on Cuba is profoundly ahistorical, as if the story magically began in 1959. When, in fact, former Cuban president Fidel Castro channeled symbolism of historical nationalism in the creation of revolutionary Cuba.
For example, the left-leaning economic program of, ironically, Fulgencio Batista in 1937, including state intervention in the sugar industry, was revolutionary in its own right. The offensive Platt Amendment was finally removed from the Cuban Constitution in 1940 as a longstanding objective of nationalist politics. There were two Communist ministers in President Batista’s 1940–1944 cabinet, and the old Cuban Communist Party played an open role in Cuban politics well before Fidel Castro appeared on the scene. U.S. business complained of nationalist “Cubanization” laws to intervene in the labor market and take control of utilities for the “public good” in the late 1940s and 1950s, before the Cuban Revolution.
The key to understanding Cuba in 2015 is not ideology, but rather the country’s nationalist narrative and the cultural context of being Cuban (la cubanía), informed by a complex and nuanced history.
Curse of Preconditions
The new chapter of engagement between the United States and Cuba will proceed in stages. First, the parties must reach enough of an agreement on enough issues to allow diplomatic relations to be restored, the respective embassies reopened, and ambassadors exchanged. It is not even necessary that all the issues be addressed. Once a proper diplomatic relationship has been established, a dialogue can take place, including on issues on which the two countries do not agree.
But there is a common political impulse in the United States to try to impose preconditions on talks with Cuba – a kind of reward thesis for “good behavior” – which could stall progress from one stage to another.
For their part, the Cubans have always rejected this kind of approach. One can count on the fingers of one hand the countries with which Cuba does not maintain normal state-to-state relations. So this is the context that informs Cuba’s worldview: It is accustomed to being recognized as a legitimate state and treated as a sovereign equal.
Risk of the Wrong Premise
There are multiple theories about why both presidents decided at this time to agree to establish a more normal relationship. One of them is that Cuba is in a weakened and vulnerable state, preparing to lose the Venezuelan oil subsidy, and that it is turning to the United States in desperation. This is not the reason.
Buoyed by photos of some American flags hung from balconies in Havana in the days following the Dec. 17 announcement, some could assume that the Cuban people are waiting impatiently for a triumphant “return” of the United States. This would be a misreading.
In general, Cubans would certainly welcome more options for goods and services, but the opening with the United States is more important because of what it implies for the evolution of the domestic Cuban economy and society. Cubans, regardless of political stripe, are deeply patriotic.
The premises of engagement need to be aligned with the realities of Cuba.
There is a strong current of thought in the political classes in the United States that the objective of this new opening to Cuba is to accelerate regime change in Cuba in a way that the old embargo failed to do.
To the degree that this narrative is perceived to be the dominant one, and that U.S. business people are characterized as “foot soldiers of political change” in Cuba, the chances for a successful normalization diminish, as does the opportunity for U.S. companies to do real business in Cuba.
Cuba is not interested in any domestic political change that is not of its own making.
Failure to Listen
Many foreigners wanting to do things in Cuba are so focused on their own goals that they do not listen to what the Cubans tell them. The Cubans are tough-minded negotiators in defense of their interests, but they generally speak clearly in articulating their priorities, which may be something altogether different. Active listening is highly recommended.
It is unlikely that the diplomats leading the first round of talks in Havana from Jan. 21–22 will be caught in any of these traps, but others could be, including U.S. business as it prepares to return to Cuba.