The dual dilemmas of normalization: Obama's and Castro's
Regardless of the reasons that spurred President Obama to undertake the process to normalize relations with Raúl Castro’s Government, it is important to note that his first duty as President is to defend the interests of the United States – whether those interests coincide or not with those of Cubans or not. Although one cannot rule out that one of his reasons was, in fact, to improve the economic and political welfare of citizens on the island, it is reasonable to suppose that the main objective was to prevent a catastrophic collapse of what remains of the Cuban economy, which would trigger a controlled flight of refugees into the US. For many years this has been the fear harboured by American officials, in light of the history of these waves of emigration, starting with Camarioca, in 1965; followed by Mariel, in 1980; the boat crises of the 90s; and the recent emigration journeys through Central and South America.
The chronic crisis of the Cuban economy condemns most Cubans to a sustained state of uncertainty regarding almost every element of daily life, which renders citizens highly dependent on decisions made by the Government, this forming the cornerstone of its totalitarian power. Despite Raúl’s reform measures, and the apparent spike in external revenues thanks to the rise in American tourism, promoted by Obama, the situation threatens to worsen as the Venezuelan economy crumbles, given Cuba's acute dependence on this country.
All this would suggest that the Cuban government should be operating with a heightened sense of urgency and diligence to take measures to save Cuba from an economic crisis that could undermine the regime's political stability. Raúl Castro's Government, however, has been very cautious in implementing the reform measures promised in its "Guidelines" five years ago. In this context, the partial or total lifting of the American embargo on Cuba's statist economy would serve to solve a serious problem for Havana: it would not have to follow through and fully implement these "Guidelines."
The interesting thing is that this situation is part of a dilemma facing the Cuban dictator, as he, in turn, poses another one for President Obama. Castro's dilemma is that he must resolve his country's internal crisis, but he cannot free up the economy to such a degree that he politically empowers Cubans. After all, freedom is a powerful asset. The freedoms that the Government concedes for economic activity are bound to enable citizens to interact more and more effectively with other Cubans, bolstering their capacity to organise and wield influence and power in political spheres, based on their new economic ones. It is reasonable to assume that the dictator senses this, and must, therefore, seek a compromise between two extremes that could engender political crises of different kinds: if the economy does not improve, political stability is at stake, but "too much" improvement could jeopardise the control the Government has over the population.
Obama's dilemma, meanwhile, intertwined with Castro's, consists of how to ease the American embargo in such as to achieve a middle ground between two extremes: an insufficient liberalisation of the embargo, which would fail to prevent the collapse of the Cuban economy, and an excessive liberalisation that, without internal reform in Cuba that benefits its citizens, would end up strengthening the dictatorial regime at the expense of its people and their civil rights.
Note that Obama's and Castro's balance points depend on each other: the less Obama frees things up, the more Castro would have to do so in order to stimulate his economy and prevent a crisis, and vice versa: the more liberal Obama is, the less Castro has to free up the economy he controls.
If we take Raúl Castro's statements seriously, in which he has promised that his Government "will not yield an inch" in terms of its internal reform, one can expect this strategic game to favour Castro, as America's great fear of Cuba's economic collapse should prevail over other objectives of normalisation, pushing Obama to maximise concessions to Castro in order to reduce the risk of yet another exodus of Cubans to the United States. It follows that this process would end up minimising the benefits that Castro would allow Cubans to enjoy, so that they are not politically empowered by their economic improvement.
It can be assumed that Raúl Castro's Government has exploited that fear to pressure the US to unconditionally lift the embargo. It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that after the new wave of American concessions to Castro's economy, and President Obama's visit to Cuba, Castro will continue to capitalise on Washington's concerns to reduce the scope of the reform promised, and to continue to pressure the USA, demanding additional concessions in exchange for stemming the tide of Cuban emigrants. At this point it should be noted that these concerns are held by both American political parties, and the Congressional representatives in Washington share incentives to support a generous policy towards Cuba, as in their respective states they defend the interests of companies exporting food to Cuba, in addition to investors who believe that there are new business opportunities on the island.
In short, the current normalisation process is lopsided, as it does not include a normalisation of relations between the Cuban people and Castro's Government, or a significant facilitation of direct relations between Cuban and US citizens. The process is also uneven in terms of the two rulers' fears, as Raúl Castro does not fear an exodus of Cubans as much as Obama does. After all, the former has more power over his country than the latter; fortunately, for Americans, and regrettably for Cubans.