Pragmatism vs. Ideology: An existentialist interpretation of the Americas Summit

One of the perhaps most ironic drinks in the world is the Cuba Libre: rum, lime juice and cola, one of the United States’ most iconic inventions, are mixed together to produce the perfect example of political satire. But the United States of America and Cuba have not always shared such great divides as humoured by the Cuba Libre; before either of their independence movements, plans to purchase Cuba from the Spanish Empire were suggested numerous times by the US. As Spanish influence began to fade throughout the Caribbean and Latin America, the United States managed to establish economic and political dominance over the island. Foreign investment holdings, a large proportion of imports and exports in its grasp and a strong influence on Cuban political affairs set it up as a key driver in the development of the island: in early 1959, US companies owned approximately 40 per cent of Cuban sugar lands, the vast majority of cattle ranches, 90 per cent of mines and mineral concessions, 80 per cent of utilities, practically the entirety of the oil industry and provided two-thirds of Cuba’s imports.

Furthermore, Cuba became pseudo-independent as a de facto US protectorate in 1902. Radicalism and social strives grew, but despite efforts to solidify its democratic system, it fell under Fulgencio Batista’s dictatorship in 1952. Growing unrest and instability led to Batista’s overthrowing in January 1959 by the July 26th movement which followed to establish a government under Fidel Castro’s leadership. Since 1965 Cuba has been governed as a single-party state by the Communist Party. According to former U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, Earl T. Smith, the majority of aid from the U.S. to Batista’s regime was in the form of weapons assistance, strengthening his dictatorship and failing to advance the economic welfare of the Cuban people. Smith also testified to the U.S. Senate in 1960, stating that such actions later “enabled Castro and the Communists to encourage the growing belief that America was indifferent to Cuban aspirations for a decent life.”

Image courtesy of flippinyank, © 2008, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of flippinyank, © 2008, some rights reserved

On 6 October, 1960 John F. Kennedy in the midst of his presidential campaign decried Batista’s relationship with the U.S. government and criticised the Eisenhower administration for supporting him, stating that Fulgencio Batista had “turned Democratic Cuba into a complete police state—destroying every individual liberty.” Administration spokesmen had publicly praised Batista and confirmed their strong ties to his government – an appreciation of him as staunch ally was unequivocal. Nonetheless, the Batista regime murdered thousands and turned Havana into a hedonistic playground for the world’s elite during the 1950s. The government’s relationship to organised crime was highly substantial in the workings of social pressures. Sizable gambling, prostitution and drug profits for American Mafiosos as well as corrupt law-enforcement officials and their politically elected cronies are only examples of the vicious cycle into which the dictatorship was feeding. Dictators free themselves but enslave the people. Kennedy additionally stated that America had “failed to press for free elections” and this lack of democratic representation is a natural trigger in frustration, despair and, at times, uprisings. As humans we want our freedom and yet, we often cannot disassociate ourselves from the romantic ideology and the pragmatic establishment of it – should we? Or do we preserve our integrity this way?

Less than two years after the revolution, Dwight Eisenhower imposed an embargo and most ties were severed for the next 54 years. This is now about to change. The latest America summit in Panama was held on April 10th and 11th; this is the first of such gatherings (which began in 1994) attended by Cuba at the insistence of several Latin American nations. Following President Obama’s announcement in December of plans to restore diplomatic, and potentially business relations with Cuba, the meeting between Raúl Castro, the country’s current president, and Mr Obama is in itself monumental – and their openness to slowly reach a compromise even more so. Sparking conversation between the two nations will be a huge step towards lifting the economic embargo and while many Latin American countries feel antipathy towards Cuba’s Castro brothers, they dislike the embargo even more.

Talks regarding the reopening of embassies have been developing more slowly than hoped. The United State wants its diplomats to be able to travel and operate freely on the island while Cuba wants the State Department to remove it from the list of terrorism state sponsors; fellow suspects include Iran, Sudan and Syria. Perhaps obviously enough, until Cuba is liberated from this branding iron mark, banks and foreign investors remain sceptical of the island’s diplomatic missions and refuse to do business. Though the delicate relationship between the two countries has come under further strain by Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. In March, seven Venezuelan officials received sanctions from the US due to human rights violations, giving their besieged president the incentive to turn the summit into a byzantine anti-imperialist rally. Venezuela, Cuba and another few hard-left regimes demand the US formally condemn the sanctions whilst Mr. Maduro’s arrival in Panama came with the demand from 22 ex-presidents of the centre and right to free opposition prisoners. Unilateral intervention by the United States is unpopular across Latin America; the imposed sanctions challenge mediation attempts by the South American Union between Venezuela’s United Socialist Party and its opposition, the Democratic Unity Roundtable.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, no concrete decisions were announced regarding the near future of the US-Cuba relation, but Mr. Obama is widely expected to fulfil Cuba’s wishes and remove it from the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism; he wishes to ‘study it further’. But even so, the path ahead is long and the road filled with obstacles. Disagreements between countries of the two hemispheres on issues such as human rights and democracy are long-withstanding, and central to each nation’s political identity, moral ideology and overall governance. Opening conversation and other forms of diplomatic engagements is, nonetheless, an important first step.

But politics is an environment of constant circumstantial change. Not only have presidential candidates been announced in the United States for the 2016 elections but changes are also afoot in Latin America. Luckily for Mr Obama, these should work in his favour. His constructive policies for the region and willingness to participate in future political rendezvous signal an active interest in strengthening diplomatic ties. An immigration reform, applicable also to Cuba, an adaptation of the current dealings of the war on drugs and a request to Congress for $1 billion in aid to diminish the drug war’s impact on Central America are indeed vital in the quest to find a common ground. Furthermore, the trough following the commodity boom in Latin America is shaping many of their conversations. Economic growth for 2015 has been predicted to amount to approximately 1 per cent, its worst performance since 2009. The ‘marea rosa’ (pink tide) is ebbing and centralised economies are finding themselves stuck for trading partners and growth opportunities.

A consistent trade figure in the region is China. With the rising fame of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the United States’ refusal to join the multilateral development bank (while Germany, France and Italy, for example, quite happily welcomed the opportunity), it is thus exceptionally important for the US to strengthen its ties with its southern counterparts; doing so will enable development projects in Latin America to flourish, living standards to rise, resources to be exchanged efficiently and businesses to be led competently. The December 17th agreement eased the trade blockade: Americans were allowed to visit Cuba without a special permit but instead with a higher spending limit and the ability to send more remittances. Banks and telecom firms have also been permitted to scout the island for possible operating opportunities, but the designation of Cuba as a terrorism sponsor unsettles banks and businesses. Though the deal has not lifted all obstacles towards the removal of the embargo: lawyers have stated that before the embargo is revised, approximately $7 billion in lost property, following the revolution claimed by American citizens and companies must be repaid.[1]

Further obstacles remain on the Cuban side. Much of the economy is still centralised and/or controlled by the state including foreign trade, banking and financial law. A foreign businessman active in Cuba, quoted by The Economist, stated that investors are weary of the island as some have been jailed without full and fair process. Even though China is prominent, their concrete monetary investment is slim. The embargo and Cuba’s entrenched suspicion of enterprise sets further limits. The Castro government continues to make it impossible for firms to receive foreign investments or even import supplies. But Cuban business-owners are growing tired of these restrictions. Owners of private restaurants (paladares) complain that the government is attempting to keep them from importing simple items such as exotic spices; they are convinced this is a deliberate attempt to keep them from flourishing and thereby potentially changing the social system through economic diversity or momentum. Additionally, as economic inequality in both hemispheres reaches shocking levels of disproportion, policies which aim to close the gulf become a priority in each nation’s own, often not overlapping, sentiment.

A person’s ideology is at times closely tied to their existential belief; what this means politically is that hypocrisy, corruption and suppression are usually met with feverous defenders of liberty, but what happens when pragmatism and ideology begin to part? No one is to blame as the ideal aim of both is for a government to provide for its people in the best way – the exact definition of this ‘best way’ naturally differs with every person one asks. Is pragmatism thus a first stride to forget history and instead, perhaps hypocritically in the case, focus on international business? If one has particularly strong leftist tendencies one might initially be inclined to agree instinctively, but it is necessary to focus on the long-term development opportunities that could arise. However, it does mean that pragmatism will begin to get the better of ideology. The Cuba-US relationship is representative of a potential trade-off, though encouragement and optimism can be found in the enthusiasm and mutual interest evident at the recent Summit of the Americas.

[1] Seeing as Cuban GDP is approximately $68.23 billion this would represent almost 10.3% of GPD