Thinking Through the Headlines: Interview with Dr Elizabeth Kath

US President Barack Obama stands in front of Che Guevara monument during a ceremony at Jose Marti Monument in Havana, Cuba, 21 March 2016. Photo: AlterNet

US President Barack Obama stands in front of Che Guevara monument during a ceremony at Jose Marti Monument in Havana, Cuba, 21 March 2016. Photo: AlterNet

On 21 March 2016, President Barack Obama traveled to Cuba; he was the first US President to visit the island nation since 1928. This landmark event was part of recent diplomatic efforts to normalize US-Cuban relations after decades of Cold War hostility.

Christina Plant (CP) asked Dr Elizabeth Kath (EK), Lecturer at RMIT’s School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, Co-Director of Global Reconciliation, Honorary Research Fellow with the UN Global Compact Cities Programme, and author of new book Australian-Latin American Relations: New Links in a Changing Global Landscape, for her views on President Obama's historic visit.

CP: Barack Obama stated, ‘I have come to Cuba to bury the last remnant of the cold war in the Americas,” In your opinion, does this historic event signal real change in the relationship between the United States and Cuba.

EK: Symbolically Obama’s visit to Cuba – the first US presidential visit to the island in 88 years – is clearly an important moment in the thawing of US-Cuba relations. However, when you ask about ‘real change’ I am interpreting your question as referring more to practical changes on the island that would directly impact the everyday lives of Cuban people. And this is precisely what should matter most.

Over the last few years we have already seen quite rapid change in Cuba. When Raúl Castro took over the Cuban presidency from his brother Fidel in 2006, there was much speculation about how Cuban policy would develop under the rule of this quieter, less flamboyant brother who had seldom before this time appeared in the spotlight. Raúl Castro turned out to be comparatively pragmatic, and during his presidency a series of practical changes have been implemented which have moved Cuba in the direction of a mixed market economy.

Placing these reforms in historical context though, this is not the first time Cubans have experienced market reforms (under Fidel, during the crisis of the 1990s there were regular cycles of economic liberalisations followed by crackdowns). This is not the first time either that Cubans have heard predictions and talk around the lifting of the embargo and the normalisation of US-Cuban relations. For some I am sure that a certain resignation has set in over the decades, and so there may be a degree of “I’ll believe it when I see it”.

This US presidential visit to Cuba was made possible by a particular set of bilateral circumstances including the coinciding of Raúl Castro’s relatively pragmatic presidency with Obama’s last year in office, which many see as a time when he wants to leave an historic mark on foreign policy. To address your question more directly, we are already seeing tangible changes in the direction of normalizing US-Cuban relations (including new embassies, the introduction of direct flights and ferry services, and US businesses like Netflix and AirBnB operating in the market).

Although you asked about my opinion, as a social scientist (who once lived and researched in Cuba but is now watching Obama’s visit from afar in Australia), I’m more interested in the sentiments of the Cuban people who are the ones whose lives are directly affected.

Obama’s visit clearly stirred up a great deal of excitement, but was also met with mixed reactions. Interestingly, among the fiercest critics of Obama’s visit included on the one hand US conservatives and anti-Castro Cuban-Americans (who argue that Obama’s visit endorses an illegitimate regime that is still exercising repression of political dissidents), and Fidel Castro on the other hand (who wrote a scathing open letter to Obama, describing his speech as ‘syrupy’). Some anti-Castro dissidents on the island also criticised Obama’s speech (one describing the speech as reminding her of Fidel’s speeches - “long-winded and dodging the real issues”).

Fidel Castro’s open letter to Obama, in turn met with many reactions in Cuba from supporters of Obama’s reconciliation efforts. Among these was Cuba’s celebrated medical student-turned-salsa star Manuel "Manolín" González Hernández (also known as the ‘Medico de la Salsa/ Salsa Doctor’), who published his own open letter to Fidel in response to Fidel’s letter to Obama, asserting: “We are all Cubans. Those who are with you and those who aren’t, those who died fighting with you and those who died fighting against you… And in the name of all those Cubans who have died, all of them without exception, we want peace and reconciliation and we want good relations with our Northern neighbours”.

US-Cuba hostility has caused, and continues to cause, immeasurable pain for Cubans on both sides of the Florida Strait. The relationship between reconciliation and justice is always fraught with pain and complexity, and burying a hatchet of this size will not make for easy digging, but we are seeing the emergence of a new generation of Cubans who are moving on from the Cold War.

Plaza de la Revolución, Havana, Cuba

Plaza de la Revolución, Havana, Cuba

CP: The Cuban Economy has been greatly impacted as a result of the trade embargo set upon it by the United States of America, if the embargo is lifted, what will the impact be for Cuba.

EK: I think that the most informative way of addressing this question is to outline the positions held by those for and against ending the embargo on Cuba, including the different consequences that each predicts would result if the embargo were lifted.

On the one hand, those opposed to lifting the embargo have argued that it is an important bargaining tool for the US that allows ongoing pressure for political change in Cuba, and that removing it would endorse and consolidate the Castro regime. Those who take this position also tend to argue that the Castro government, rather than the Cuban people, would be the main economic beneficiary if the embargo were lifted.

On the other hand, those who want the embargo lifted argue that it is an outdated relic of the Cold War and that removing it would help to end the isolation and material deprivation on the island. Some point out that ending the embargo would also have economic benefits for the US economy (as US companies would be able to enter the Cuban market), and of course many also fear some of the potential consequences of this.

Another argument commonly made in support of lifting the embargo is that open trade would bring increased interaction between US and Cuban people, and that this would organically bring social and political change. Some also argue that the embargo has, over the years, served the Cuban government as a convenient excuse for internal economic problems, and that removing the embargo would expose these problems and create pressure for reform.

CP: Finally, Obama faced criticism about standing in front of a tribute to Cuban Revolutionary figure Che Guevara, could you explain why you think some people would find this so offensive.

EK: The famous picture of Che Guevara’s face, originally captured by Cuban photographer Alberto Korda in 1960, is one of the world’s most recognised and reproduced images – most of us around the world have seen this image countless times on T-shirts, coffee mugs, posters and the like. The proliferation of this image helped to turn Che Guevara into a widely popular and romanticised symbol of revolution and counter culture. As such, I can understand that some who are familiar only with the romantic image might have been confused when the photograph of Obama in front of that image caused a stir.

However, Che Guevara is a highly controversial figure. He is idolised as a courageous hero by some and reviled as a mass murderer by others. Among Cuban-American exile communities he is widely despised. For many US conservatives, an image of Che Guevara is also likely to be perceived as an ideological symbol associated with socialism. Obama appeared in a photograph in front of the large metal monument of Che Guevara’s image, (along with the revolutionary slogan widely associate with him – Hasta La Victoria, Siempre / Until Victory, Always) that stands in the Plaza of the Revolution against a building where Che Guevara once worked.

This monument is part of the scenery in Cuba and there are many others like it, to the extent that it can be difficult to stand anywhere without some form of revolutionary mural in the background. However, a picture of the US president in front of a Che Guevara monument was always bound to raise the ire of some.

Emmanuel Economou