Obama, Castro and the perfect storm. Why is this crisis different from previous ones?
This time the "doomsayers" are not the Cubanologists, Cuban-American radio stations in Miami, US officials, or dissidents on the Island. This time the somber portents are emanating from the best-informed echelons of Cuban officialdom, and are being validated by ministerial directives. The powers that be are envisioning a dire crisis whose magnitude could rival that of the early 90s, but under current circumstances this would trigger protests that could shatter the cohesion of Cuba's power-holding elite.
The prospect that the island is on course to sail into a "perfect storm" is portended not only by the deputy director of the newspaper Granma, but also by party leaders in key municipalities, like the Plaza de la Revolución, where the offices of the Councils of State and Ministers, the PCC's Central Committee, and the ministries of the Interior and the Armed Forces are located. The message being sent is one of uncertainty about the immediate future.
There could be (according to these well-informed sources) social uprisings on such a scale that it would be impossible to control them without the excessive use of violence, and at a calamitous national and international political cost.
The Americans' logic after 17 December
Preventing this perfect storm – which could unleash an exodus greater than that from Mariel, in 1980 – was what prompted Obama to commence exploratory talks with Havana in 2013. For the US intelligence community it was clear that if the trend of social and economic decline in Cuba was compounded by the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, a new Cuban crisis could coincide with the US election year and Obama's last year in office.
With this scenario in mind, the idea announced by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright almost three years after passage of the Helms-Burton Act, on January 5, 1999, was resuscitated: the US would be willing to establish economic relations with non-State sectors of the Cuban economy. It is obvious that the legal interpretation made by the Clinton Administration of scope of the sanctions levied by Helms-Burton did not include the private sector.
Based on this precedent, the Obama Administration decided to facilitate economic and financial transactions with the non-State sector of the Cuban economy, which did not require Congressional authorization.
Their "experts" predicted that doing so would improve living conditions on the island, due to the private sector's tremendous potential to create wealth and jobs in the short term. Their logic was that, in a context of greater internal stability, Raúl Castro would be less inclined to violently suppress basic freedoms. The most optimistic even envisaged the island cooperating to find a political situation to its colony-like dependence on Venezuela. The aim of this new strategy was to ensure stability on the Island, not to overturn the totalitarian regime in place there.
The old logic was succeeded by that exhibited by some influential experts in political marketing, abruptly transformed into upstart specialists on Cuba.
The logic of the elite in power
But the logic of Cuba's ruling elite defies such rational patterns. The Castros did not feel obliged to make any reciprocal commitments that would compel them to consider changes in their national or international politics.
Unilateral concessions whetted their appetites. They asked the US for more in bilateral negotiations, and even believed that the US president could lift the embargo on State enterprises under military control (something they are still working on).
The crisis that began to knock at the Island's gates was not solely caused by Venezuela's economic collapse, and much less by the embargo. It is also – and above all – the result of Raúl Castro's irresponsible and stubborn refusal to implement the kind of swift reform that would allow the emerging non-State sector to immediately receive an injection of capital, technology, know-how and access to external markets.
Instead, the only thing they have intensified and spread has been repression and levels of violence – which is precisely what US officials wanted to prevent to avert the possibility of provoking instability and an emigration crisis. The false suppositions upon which the new policy toward Havana were based have contributed, in fact, to greater instability on the island. Exactly the opposite of their intent.
18 months after 17 December Raúl Castro is captaining the country, "steady as she goes," on course for a perfect storm. US unilateralism actually aggravated, inadvertently, his arrogance and intransigence.
Obama's excellent performance during his visit to the Island does not erase the fact that the Achilles heel of America's policies toward Cuba is its misunderstanding of the "logic" employed by Cuba's ruling elite, and Havana’s assumption that it can ignore the necessary links between freedom, prosperity and human rights, and still achieve rapprochement with Washington.
Why is this crisis different from previous ones?
Three pillars of the Cuban totalitarian system have been broken: its inefficient State economy, its overexploited subsidies from Venezuela, and its discredited Communist ideology. Repression is all it has left. Dealing with social protests, however, does not necessarily mean beating the opposition, which is now even more numerous and proactive than in 1994. Whatever happens is going to be filmed and distributed, within the country and to the whole world, by two million smartphones, which did not exist back in the days of the Maleconazo.
On the Island frustration, discontent and deteriorating living conditions are only increasing. And with them, so is the number of potential migrants, who, after Cuba's negotiations with Ecuador, Nicaragua and Mexico, now only have the sea left as an option. The USA would receive an influx of immigrants ten times greater than that which left from Mariel, and in an election year. In its shortsightedness, Havana seems to believe that this threat could be the instrument of blackmail it needs to finally achieve a lifting of the embargo on the State economy. The consequences of this stratagem could be catastrophic.
In his ineptitude, Raúl Castro may not appreciate the true dimensions of the current situation. He has created a perfect storm, one bearing down on both Cuba and the US.