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Two nights in Havana: Obama's historic rumba with Cuba

Two nights in Havana: Obama's historic rumba with Cuba
Published 21 Mar 2016 

The slow dance between the US and Cuba has been steadily increasing in tempo in recent months in the lead-up to the sizzling finale of Obama's visit to the island this week. This is the first US Presidential visit in almost 90 years and both sides prepared carefully.

Barack Obama and wife Michelle arrive in Cuba (Photo: Getty Images)

Old Havana glamour has been given a 2016 update. US electronic music group, Major Lazer, tested the waters with a recent concert on the iconic waterfront Malecón esplanade and it's rumoured that Beyonce, darling of the Obamas, will make an appearance during their visit. (The Cubans aren't letting things get too out of hand; the Rolling Stones were told to delay their show until after the President had left). Of course even without any efforts to revamp, the US-Cuban mix of cold war intrigue and espionage, handsome rebels, and historical assassination plots were always going to make for a colourful backdrop to the visit.

Putting aside the mojito for a minute, Obama's visit is about the work he has overseen to end a prolonged and damaging foreign policy for both countries. Changing the mutually detrimental position that was moored in the past is truly a legacy for Obama to be proud of. Michelle Obama and their two daughters will be there to witness the President's major speech in Havana on Tuesday, crowning the long overdue change in US stance towards Cuba. 

As well as a State dinner at the Revolutionary Palace and official meetings, Obama's Havana itinerary includes watching the Tampa Bay Rays play the Cuban national baseball team. The popularity of baseball in Cuba is a reminder of just how intertwined the histories of the two countries are. Geographically separated by only 150km of water, the break in relations more than 50 years ago set the island on a determinedly different course towards Latin-flavoured socialism. Add to this a different language and a stark cultural divide and it can be easy to forget geography.

But stumbling across baseball fields in the scorching Cuban countryside begs the question of how two countries so closely situated could retain a policy of non-engagement for over a century. There was the revolution itself, and the following ideological splits but the futility of the broken relationship in the many following decades makes it hard to fathom that it has taken until now for a change to come.

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The US has been out of step with Latin America on Cuba, and Obama's moves to get in sync have been well received. The timing was right. Cuba had the new, more pragmatic, Castro brother Raúl in power who was feeling the pressure of the enduring daily hardship for Cubans under the painful effects of the embargo. The outlook for Cuba was increasingly grim as the security and economic situation in Venezuela (Cuba's oil supplier and historical ideological ally) deteriorated under President Nicolás Maduro. Even the iconic Cuban ice cream store Coppelia, the Communist country's best known government-prescribed frivolity, was suffering as its dairy farmers were beset by underdevelopment and technology gaps common throughout the Cuban agricultural sector.

Meanwhile in the US,  the unpopularity of the US amongst Latin American countries (which had the potential to worsen as tensions between Washington and Caracas increased) and a growing Chinese presence throughout the region was making a strong argument for re-engagement, even for the most conservative foreign-policy makers,

Under these slightly more favourable conditions, Obama's team seized the opportunity to begin working on the diplomatic rapprochement, although extreme political sensitivities at home and abroad meant it had to be done covertly. The secret talks between the US and Cuba — facilitated by the Vatican under its popular Latino Pope — had actually been taking place in Canada for some time before the rest of the world heard about it. But perhaps the invitation to dance was truly extended in South Africa in 2013 at the funeral of Obama's hero, Nelson Mandela, when Obama literally extended a hand to the Cubans, taking Raul Castro by surprise.

Cuba returned the gesture by showing a willingness to take the talks seriously, although it withheld any real commitments until the US had proven its intentions. Removing Cuba from the state-sponsored terrorism list and the release of Alan Gross in the 2014 prisoner swap were crucial steps to secure confidence on both sides. [fold]

Obama's administration understood how the dance needed to unfold, and has continued to take the lead, slowly paving the way by making the changes allowed under its regulatory powers. The changes have been meaningful, including allowing remittances to flow to the island, relaxing travel bans and some financial restrictions, for both Cubans and the diaspora in the US.

The process has been tentative and compromise required on both sides. The issue of the return of Guantánamo Bay is not resolved; and Obama has insisted on meeting with civil society members to discuss freedom of speech in Cuba during his visit. On Friday, Venezuelan President Maduro visited Havana to send a message of socialist solidarity ahead of the Obama entourage.

But ultimately, the final steps in the lead-up to the Havana visit were delivered with flourish. Last Wednesday, the first direct mail run between the two countries in over a century delivered a letter from Obama in reply to an invitation from a Cuban woman to discuss US-Cuba relations over a 'cafecito' (a Cuban coffee). The following day, the US removed Cuba from its list of countries deemed to have insufficient security in their ports. An obvious effect of this step will be the increasing passage of cruise ships through the Florida Straits.

Introducing Cuba to 'capitalist elements'

But more than this, it is a valuable move for the Cuban government with its plan to update the socialist economic model using 'capitalist elements'. The plan hinges on the success of the new Mariel deepwater port located on the outskirts of Havana. The port and its surrounding special economic zone have distinct economic laws designed to attract foreign investment and production in a,typically Cuban controlled manner.  The Castro government would like to see Mariel become a 'transhipment' point in the Americas strategically situated between the (soon to be expanded) Panama Canal and the ports along the US eastern seaboard.

In essence, the Castros' plan is to oversee an opening of the Cuban economy in priority sectors — tourism, agriculture, mining and energy and infrastructure — but under trade and investment laws that retain government control over the labour force and business ownership. The Cuban government wants to avoid the national historical traps of trade dependence on the US and the kind of 'undesirable' tourism that saw the island become a mobsters' playground back in the 1950s. While currently around 1.4 million Canadians book their annual beach holidays to Cuban all-inclusive resorts, the Cuban government is looking to move to attracting high-value, low-impact tourists in the future. The online rental accommodation company Airbnb is already a hit in Cuba, with around 14,000 listings available, as a natural fit with the traditional Cuban 'casa particular' homestay system.

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Best laid plains aside, precisely when the 'controlled opening' will actually begin to ramp up depends on when the embargo is lifted and how quickly conservative financial institutions dare to make financial transactions with Cuba. While lifting of the embargo is not yet in sight, a possible announcement over the coming days in Havana will be the removal of the 10% penalty on exchanging US dollars in Cuba if the US will allow Cuba access to the global banking system. On the domestic front, at some point the Castro brothers will need to unify the dual currencies currently in circulation which have until now allowed them to strictly separate Cuban prices and wages from tourism income.

So with Obama's arrival, the dance is now getting more serious. Both leaders are looking to the future and ensuring the process of re-engagement continues even without them at the helm (President Raúl Castro has said that he will hand over power in 2018). The removal of the US embargo will be the clincher. But with Congress opposing any such move before the US election, Obama wants to make enough progress such that any major steps taken cannot be easily reversed by the next administration. A Democrat in the White House is naturally the better outcome for Cuba. While ironically of the Republic candidates, Trump is actually the least problematic from the Cuban perspective thus far (on the US-Cuba thawing he has just remarked that he would have 'done it better' and that the 'wet foot-dry foot' immigration policy designed to allow Cubans fleeing to the US to quickly pursue residency in the US is 'unfair').

The shape of Cuba's future is as yet unclear. Winds of change are breezing, if not blowing, through the Americas with new leadership in some parts — Canada, Argentina — and the deterioration of old Latin anti-imperialists in others such as Venezuela and Bolivia. Where Cuba will take its new relationship with the US will depend on how the voice of young Cubans makes itself heard and how economic progress plays out post-Castro brothers. Obama's part in the rumba will reach its height in this Havana exposition. The hand of invitation was extended after so many years in the cold, both partners have exchanged moves, Obama will have his moment in the sun, and then it will be time to move forward. 

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