Cuba as It is --after Ben Rhodes


A review of Ben Rhodes, The World As It Is (London: The Bodley Head, 2018).


Maya Bernstein-Schalet, Revista Temas


The only thing that Ben Rhodes knew for sure about Cuba when he began negotiating with the Cuban government was that every prior effort to improve relations had failed. However, he certainly came to understand some of the longstanding contradictions in U.S. policy towards its island neighbor. In his political memoir, The World As It Is, the former Obama advisor writes: “Our Treasury Department enforces an embargo on trade with Cuba that was established in the 1960s even as USAID tries to deliver phones and printers to dissidents there that would be more readily available without an embargo.”[1]


Rhodes was relatively inexperienced in crafting Cuba policy; at his first secret meeting with Cuban representatives, his response to Alejandro Castro’s long history lesson in U.S. aggressions towards Cuba was, “I understand that this history is important to you, but I wasn’t even born when a lot of this happened.”[2]


To be an American in Cuba today is to confront a million contradictions of one’s presence in the country, an experience that barely scratches the surface of what it is to be Cuban in Cuba today. I doubt that it would be possible for many Americans and even government officials to understand Cuba as a Cuban does. However, in his memoir, Rhodes expresses a perspective on Cuba that is markedly different from past perspectives of U.S. government officials. He helped craft changes in policy that included removing Cuba from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list, unwinding the U.S. embargo, and restoring diplomatic relations. These changes may have been a means to the same end that the U.S. government has pursued for six decades, promoting “reform” of Cuba’s economy and political system, but they were done differently, without an insistence on regime change.


Before 17D, and before 2014, Cuba and the United States cooperated on issues such as counterterrorism, migration, hurricane warnings, and counter narcotics. The history of U.S.-Cuban relations is proof that the two countries are, as Rhodes describes, locked in an embrace of “two exhausted boxers who have become tangled up in each other’s arms, at odds with each other yet needing each other as foils.”[3] Formal diplomatic relations or no, tourism or no, the mandates of being neighbors will continue to force the two countries to cooperate in some way.


Although back channel relations have existed between the U.S. and Cuba since 1959, the restoration of diplomatic relations in 2014 was the first time, perhaps aside from Jimmy Carter’s visit, that the representatives of the U.S. government publicly demonstrated a respectful way of negotiating. They showed a willingness to respect the same sort of diplomatic equality that the U.S. extends, at least officially, to most countries in the world. Even if restoring diplomatic relations was a different tactic of an old strategy to promote U.S. “pro-democracy” policies in Cuba, U.S. officials such as Rhodes showed that they were willing to sit at the same table with Cuban officials as diplomatic equals.


Rhodes had a view of Cuba that many visitors to the country espouse: they see a country trapped in time, stuck in the ages of foreign control and struggling to persevere. While it is true that cars from decades long past fill the streets, and many of the buildings are crumbling, Cuba is a place that continues to evolve and grow like any other place in the world. Cuba is not, as Rhodes suggests, “a place frozen in time by the absence of American engagement.”[4] It is a mistake to believe that American engagement determines Cuban life. If anything, Cuba is an ever-evolving place due to the absence of American engagement. Everything from Cuba’s policies on international relations to the ways in which bikes are repaired is affected in some way by the U.S. economic blockade of Cuba, advertised on various billboards around Havana as the “largest genocide in history.”


Rhodes emphasizes that, in writing the speech Obama gave at the Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso, he “tried to paint a picture of a future in which there was a space for everyone’s story.”[5] To Rhodes, everyone includes: Cuban dissidents who protested the government, entrepreneurs building a new Cuban economy, Cuban exiles in the United States, and Cubans without a voice in politics who simply want a better life. Notably absent from this list are those who fervently support the Cuban government.


The people who Rhodes leaves out, and who many Americans refuse to acknowledge, are the people who appreciate what the Revolution has done for them and for their families, but who continue to critique the Cuban system and advocate for more growth. Out of everyone I’ve had the privilege to meet here in Havana, this type of person is the most common, not unlike many Americans who love our country and dedicate themselves in small or large ways to make it better.


At the time that I am writing this essay, Cuba is in the process of drafting a new constitution. Hard to imagine in the United States, the new constitution is meant to reflect and build on the changing interests of Cuban society. However, Cuban “society” consists of millions of diverse individuals, each with their own hopes and dreams for the future. Constitutional debates are heated and widely attended; critiques of socialism, communism, and the Cuban government’s conceptions of political freedom are freely shared, along with commentary on a wide range of other topics. The debates are organized by neighborhoods, escuelas, and workplaces. Quite near the billboard denouncing the U.S. economic blockade is another billboard which reads: “Reforma Constuticional: Mi voluntad, mi Constitución. Soy partícipe de la elaboración de mi Constitución.” (Constitutional reform: my will, my constitution. I am a participant in the making of my constitution).


The constitutional debates are just one example of the ways in which my American education of what Cuba is has misled me. Before coming here, I never imagined that I would see a Cuban classmate stand up in an auditorium of Cuban students and ask, “If the draft of the constitution guarantees political liberty, then how can it say that it is the job of Communist Party, as the superior leader of the society and the state, to organize and orient the common efforts towards the construction of socialism?” This commentary was received with respect and full attention. I am not giving this example with the intention of stating that Cuban citizens enjoy full political freedom and freedom of speech. There is only one political party in Cuba – the Communist Party, although party elections are arguably more democratic than any elections in the United States. Here, there are no multi-million-dollar campaigns—the candidate with the most money does not have same upper hand that money affords candidates in the United States.


I can say that the situation in Cuba is far more complex than the dichotomy drawn by many Americans and Cubans alike. Cuba is often presented as a country in which there is either no political freedom or complete political freedom; no freedom of speech or complete freedom of speech; no respect for human rights or complete respect for human rights. The reality is somewhere in the middle, a reality that very few are familiar with. Rhode’s discussion of Cuba would have been, paradoxically so, augmented by such a recognition of the complexities of the Cuban political situation.


Rhodes largely gives an impression of the Cuban people as people stuck in the middle of a political war, unable to live freely and happily. He depicts Cubans as unenthusiastic for the anachronisms of the old regime and ready for a change. While some Cubans are ready for a change, Rhodes was unable to see how revolutionary policies manifest in everyday lives here. Rhodes was not able to see a family doctor leading free exercises for elderly women in a public park; Rhodes was not able to see schoolchildren of all races in a third-grade classroom; Rhodes was not able to see a Hogar Materno or a Casa de Abuelos. I am privileged to have seen all of these instances of Cuban kindness, care, and equality. Today, someone told me that Cuba is not the hell that some people describe it to be; but it is not paradise either. The lights go out in hospitals; the sick, the elderly, and the young must all climb the stairs when the electricity goes out and the elevator is broken; teachers may arrive at school and there is no classroom to teach in, nor books to teach with. Undoubtedly, the embargo has hurt the Cuban people; and the Cuban government has not always crafted sound economic policies to navigate the embargo and its challenges.


Racism, sexism, homophobia, and income inequality still exist here, despite years of government discourse bent on insisting otherwise. Rhodes does not touch on these social issues as much as the political demands, but one must mention their existence. The differences between how these structures of oppression exist in the United States and Cuba have to do with the ways in which they are institutionalized and/or continued as social practices of prejudice and discrimination.


The Cuban government, according to Rhodes, engages in intense repression to preserve an age of long outdated revolutionary rule. Many people here have expressed their genuine love for Fidel to me; they have proudly declared themselves militants of the Communist Party. I am less inclined to think of this as being brainwashed as I am to see it as the same pride that many Americans hold for their political affiliations. While a double standard clearly exists when Americans critique Cuba, it must be emphasized that many of the liberties we enjoy in the U.S. do not exist here. I do not have the knowledge or authority to comment on if there are political prisoners in Cuba, a main concern of the Obama administration and an important focus of Rhodes.


One of the most striking moments of Rhodes’ descriptions of his meetings with Cuban officials is his meeting with former Cuban president Raul Castro. After the U.S. negotiation team urged the Cubans to reform the economy, allow foreign businesses to hire Cubans directly and show more restraint in its treatment of protestors, Raul responded: “You know . . . Americans like to give people candy. They like to give people candy for doing whatever they want in Latin America. But Cuba is not interested in candy.”[6] The long history of Cuban insistence on sovereignty and autonomy supports this assertion. However, one should not misinterpret this statement as non-cooperation. It is to remind the United States, accustomed to prescribing political and economic plans to other sovereign nations, that the Cuban government will always act, first and foremost, of its own accord.


This independence of action is something expected by the United States in its own international relations, yet rarely respected when it comes to Cuba. I encourage my fellow Americans to imagine any country in the world threatening to end diplomatic relations with the United States due to the massive violations of human rights that occur daily in our prisons, where one in every four prisoners in the world are incarcerated. In the United States, one need not be a political dissenter to be detained; in the past few months, the Trump administration has tried time and time again to justify the illegal and immoral treatment of migrant children in detention camps.


The issue of imprisonment was paramount to Rhodes’ negotiations with Cuba. One of the main goals of the U.S. government was to secure the release of USAID contractor Alan Gross from Cuban prison. While various government actors and Gross himself have denied accusations of trying to foment political dissent in Cuba, Rhodes admits that Gross was indeed trying to deliver technology to Cuban dissidents. One may naturally wonder what would happen if Cuba sent agents to the United States under the guise of humanitarian assistance to plot against the United States government; one need not look farther than the example of the infamous Cuban Five to understand the dynamic. One of the Cuban’s key negotiating points in releasing Alan Gross, the Cuban Five are relatively unknown in the United States. Arrested in 1998 for gathering intelligence on Miami terrorist plots against Cuba, the Five were sent to prison in 2001 to complete sentences ranging from 13 years to life in prison after a trial condemned even by Alan Gross’ lawyer as “a disgrace.”[7] At the end of the negotiations, Alan Gross and an unnamed intelligence asset were released in exchange for the remaining three members of the Cuban five still imprisoned in the United States.


When Rhodes departed from Havana in 2014, he left behind a legacy of arguably one of most successful U.S.-Cuban negotiations of the post-revolutionary era; besides the restoration of diplomatic relations, more broad people-to-people engagement was authorized, along with some financial transactions in Cuba. Direct mail service was established, and although it takes on average six weeks to arrive, the mail move was symbolic of increased communication. I’ve been able to take advantage of this service; last week, I sent postcards from Havana with a picture of Fidel holding a “I NY” t-shirt to all of my family in New York. Hopefully they will arrive before I get home.


There is bilateral interest in the U.S. in opening up the trade of agricultural products, medicine, and technology. It is expected that the ‘Farm Bill’ will soon be enacted into law, an amendment which would permit U.S. taxpayer funds to be used for United States Department of Agriculture programs managed by independent organizations for agricultural commodity and food product promotion in Cuba.[8] Under Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, the president can only legally modify the embargo without the approval of Congress. However, perhaps such a limitation is a positive sign in the remaining years of the Trump presidency. Like many administrations in the past, the Trump administration has announced a policy of promoting regime change in Cuba. To the Trump administration, regime change means “focus upon changing the behavior of the leadership of the regime as we are unlikely to replace those who lead the regime.” This could translate into U.S. recognition that times are changing in Cuba, that the Castros no longer hold the presidency, and that claims of ‘dictatorship’ fall flat with the existence of the new Cuban president, Miguel Diaz-Canel.


Though anti-Cuba hardliners such as Marco Rubio still dominate the approach to Cuba in the United States Congress, Rubio’s consent to the Farm Bill could signify a step in the right direction. Under Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, it is ultimately up to Congress to completely lift the embargo, the most essential step that must be taken to repair U.S.-Cuban relations. Lifting the embargo would be to put a nail in the coffin of almost six decades of economic blockade; where we go from there will be a challenge on both sides to break from the status quo and continue the trajectory of Rhodes and his fellow Cuban negotiators. On the Cuban side, there is a legitimate concern of an “American tsunami” that would alter the way of life on the island for the worse. It is easier for both governments to continue outdated policies towards each other—change is hard. However, both countries would benefit enormously from better relations in the fields of health, education, trade and more. I hope a camino can be found to make it worth it for both sides.


Every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, I catch the P2 from Calle G y 9 to the University of Havana. I learn about the writing and thinking of Félix Varela y Morales, Enrique José Varona, Jose Martí and Fernando Ortiz, alongside thirty Cuban university students. Me, an American citizen, whose ancestors bore witness to the history of U.S.-Cuban relations from a very different standpoint across the ocean.


History might happen por casualidad, or perhaps everything happens for a reason, but either way, Cuba and the United States continue to experience ties of singular intimacy. One line of The World As It Is has stuck with me during my time in Havana, from a speech written by Rhodes and orated by Obama in the Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso during his trip to Cuba. In front of Raul Castro and a theater full of Cubans and Americans, Obama declared, “I know the history, but refuse to be trapped by it.”[9] Going forward, may we all know the history—and refuse to be trapped by it.



Havana, November, 2018.



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