Cuba si, Yankee si

"By contributing to a non-violent end to U.S.-Cuba hostility, Mr. Obama, who is expected to visit Cuba later this year, has partially justified the Nobel Peace Prize he won in 2009. " Cuban and American flags wave from the balcony of Hotel Saratoga in Havana.  

Malecón, the 8-kilometre-long oceanfront promenade in Havana, offers spectacular views of both sunrise and sunset, which paint the Cuban sky with colours as vivid as the beats of Cuban music. At night, another spectacle opens under the moonlight when thousands of Cubans, full of joie de vivre despite the economic hardships, sing, dance or simply chat while strolling along the promenade. But a spectacle of a different, geopolitical kind is also slowly taking shape, with Malecón as witness. Right across the road stands the imposing structure that houses the U.S. Interests Section, which will once again >become the U.S. embassy. This follows U.S. President Barack Obama’s momentous announcement on July 1, ending the U.S.’s prolonged enmity with Cuba.

Obama’s welcome step

Imperial Washington had severed diplomatic ties with Havana in 1961, after Fidel Castro led a victorious revolution toppling the U.S.-backed dictatorship in Cuba. A year later, Malecón served as a backdrop for the Cuban Missile Crisis, the only time when the world came close to a nuclear war on account of the brinkmanship between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.

Mr. Obama’s welcome U-turn is unsurprising. From the U.S. Interests Section building, Florida is only 145 kilometres away. Surely, it’s unnatural for two countries so close geographically to remain apart for so long by the divisive Cold War that took place so long ago?

By contributing to a non-violent end to U.S.-Cuba hostility, Mr. Obama, who is expected to visit Cuba later this year, has >partially justified the Nobel Peace Prize he won in 2009. In some ways, he has acted under compulsion because the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba had actually resulted in Washington itself getting isolated in Latin America. Most South and Central American countries had threatened the U.S. with a boycott of the 7th Summit of the Americas, which was held in Panama in April this year, if it insisted on keeping Cuba out of the summit. The U.S. had ensured Cuba’s non-participation in six previous summits.

The credit for peacemaking must go equally to Cuban president Raúl Castro, who has surprised everyone with his courageous foreign policy change without letting the U.S. succeed at regime change in Cuba. He has belied predictions by many neocons in the U.S. that Cuba’s communist government would collapse after his charismatic but ailing older brother ceded power in his favour in 2008, after 49 years at the helm.

During my five-day visit to Cuba last month, every Cuban I spoke to praised Mr. Raúl Castro, 84, for piloting this and two other dramatic transitions. One, he has initiated the process of bringing to the fore younger leaders who do not belong to the Castro clan. One of them, first vice-president Miguel Díaz-Canel, 55, visited India in March this year. He was warmly received by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who reportedly mentioned his admiration for Mr. Fidel Castro and praised Cuba’s impressive achievements in healthcare, education and sports.

And two, Mr. Raúl Castro has unveiled bold economic and governance reforms without undermining the stability of the communist party’s rule — a seminal lesson that both China and Cuba learnt after Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika led to the collapse of the communist-ruled Soviet Union. Mr. Raúl Castro had the reputation of being a hardliner, having been one of the architects, along with Mr. Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, of the 1959 revolution that made Cuba the sole communist-ruled country in the American continent.

However, he has proved to be a pragmatic and effective leader, intent on transforming Cuba’s highly inefficient Soviet-style economy, which left the country relatively poor and incapable of sustaining its famed cradle-to-grave social security system. With little incentive for better performance, work culture had deteriorated. This prompted Mr. Raúl Castro to exhort his countrymen: “We have to permanently erase the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where people can live without working.” He drastically cut down people under direct government employment — even barbers were government employees — and allowed people to earn more by working more, and on their own. Private enterprises and cooperatives are being encouraged in more sectors, including tourism, which has huge potential for development.

Besides Cuba’s fabulous beaches, what also attracts tourists is their admiration for the determination with which Cuba has survived the unjustified economic embargo imposed by the U.S. Mr. Raúl Castro’s reforms are necessitated by another important factor. The lack of professional and wealth-generation opportunities in Cuba prompt thousands of young Cubans to migrate to the U.S., both legally and illegally, each year. There are nearly two million Cubans in America, more than 16 per cent of Cuba’s population. Once ties with the U.S. become normal, Cuban-Americans can contribute greatly to Cuba’s all-round progress.

“Fidel tried to fix the world, while Raúl is trying to fix Cuba,” Marc Frank, a long-time U.S. correspondent of Reuters in Havana, and author of the highly acclaimed book Cuban Revelations — Behind the Scenes in Havana, told me.

Fixing Cuba

Cuba today is a far more open society than it was under Mr. Fidel Castro. Yet, young Cubans told me they want more freedom, and better Internet connectivity. Only 5 per cent of the population is connected, prompting some to remark: “Cuba, the first country to achieve 100 per cent literacy should not be the last to achieve 100 per cent Internet literacy.”

Undoubtedly, Cuba will be very different in the coming years, more prosperous, and more democratic. However, with Mr. Raúl Castro set to step down in 2018, most commentators are discussing one big question: Will the small nation be able to safeguard the gains of Mr. Fidel Castro’s revolution — its spirit of internationalism, its alternative model of social sector development, a largely crime-free society, safety and empowerment of women, better race relations, and a very clean Cuba?

Both education and healthcare are free for all Cubans. Indeed, poor Cuba has a better healthcare system than rich America. The country’s infant mortality rate is 4.2, against India’s 41. Cuba’s doctors help other developing countries. It has sent as many as 60,000 doctors to serve people in 103 countries. Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff owed her re-election in 2014 partly to the fact that Cuba sent 11,000 doctors to work in slums where Brazil’s own doctors refused to go. “It’s like an ant donating blood to an elephant,” quipped C. Rajasekhar, India’s ambassador in Havana. Cuba sent nearly 500 medics to fight Ebola in West Africa, for which the team is being considered for the Nobel Peace Prize. On June 30, the World Health Organization announced that Cuba is the first country in the world to eliminate mother-to-child HIV transmission. “Eliminating transmission of a virus is one of the greatest public health achievements possible,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, the WHO director-general.

As I stood in front of a memorial to my hero from student days, Che Guevara, at Havana’s Revolution Square, I remembered his slogan: Hasta la Victoria Siempre! (Until Victory, Always) Having bravely weathered many storms, Cuba now needs to notch up new victories, correcting some costly mistakes along the way.

(Sudheendra Kulkarni was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. E-mail: )

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