Cuba does not foresee a great change with the arrival of Obama.

Dialogue will occur if Washington assumes a more rational attitude.

The Cuban official analyzes the arrival of the Democratic Senator from Illinois to the White House, and the possibilities for interaction with Havana. “I know the United States well enough to know that there is a difference between what has existed up until now and what is coming,” he says.

Observing the news about the victory of Barack Obama this past November 4, the veteran Cuban communist Ricardo Alarcón did not overlook “a detail” in the massive gathering that greeted the first black President of the United States, which happened in the same place where the great protests of 1969  put a close to the combative decade of the sixties.

“I saw the images and recognized many friends in tears, people who were part of the New Left of another era. They felt a special kind of emotion in gathering there, not the kind one feels when one is beaten but rather in celebration of the election of a black man as President, who has promised to change the country. I am not naïve, I know that we cannot expect much change with respect to U.S. policy towards Cuba , but I understand their sense of hope.”

The President of the National Assembly of People’s Power speaks at length with La Jornada about the unknown factors, expectations and limits to a new era that will being “with this young man and his new team.” He is passionate about the subject. As representative of the revolutionary government at the United Nations, he lived in New York during the years of struggle for Civil Rights (1966-1978). He has never disconnected himself from study and analysis of U.S. politics, neither while Vice-Minister of Foreign Relations nor while representing his government in the periodic and low-profile meetings between Washington and Havana on migratory issues during the 1980s and 90s.

He draws his conclusions in a very Cuban way: “It’s not going to be easy, chico.”

He couches his opinions in the advice given by Fidel Castro – written in one of his reflections days before the election – alerting all to the “powerful tide of illusions” awakened by the phenomenon of “Obamamania.”

“What we have at present,” says Alarcón, “is a great victory by Obama, which can only be explained by his capacity to develop a wide consensus among millions of U.S. citizens who in turn came together based on a hope for change, one that has not been defined with precision. He is a man with a background that made us think that he would never be elected: son of an African immigrant, with a political trajectory that in the United States is considered liberal, and without a trace of concession to the right. I know the United States well enough to know that there is a difference between what has existed up until now and what is coming.”

“But an analysis of any promised change gets complicated with the subject of Cuba. I do not believe that we can expect a big change.

He is not radical, but rather follows a different line

Petrich: He ran his campaign as if he was an “anti-establishment” politician, but he is filling his team with people who are of the system.

Alarcón: This is true and it is not surprising. He never promised a socialist revolution. He promised change and it makes sense to me and moreover the fact that he is trying to maintain the greatest consensus possible in the process. He is being criticized by the left because he has filled his teams – economic, national security, social policy – with old Democrats now returning to power. But his is not the same line as that of Bush. There is change, not radical, but it is not the same as before.

In the case of Cuba, what Obama promised was to eliminate the restrictions added by Bush to those that were already in existence to limit remittances and travel to the island by Cubans residing in the United States. As these were executive decisions, Obama can annul them with his own executive decision. Objectively speaking, that will not mean the end of the blockade nor an end to the politics of aggression, but it is very good news for Cubans on both sides of the straights. It is healthy. If he in fact does not take this step, then forget it. He will not do anything at all.

 Petrich: Can things go further than that?

Alarcón: Nothing he has said indicates this. It will depend on many other factors.

Petrich: What could possibly bring about further changes?
Alarcón: Obama has a lot of other big problems to deal with. In the first place, the economy. How is he going to deal with that problem? What does he do with two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? And what will he do in terms of the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world? I say to you with all sincerity, Cuba is not their biggest concern.

The thing that is new, that differentiates him from candidates of the past many years, is that he has been elected thanks to the involvement of millions of U.S. citizens who are not part of a political party, that have neither an organization nor a political program. This shapeless force has exhibited its capacity to win, but how will it operate now? Will it continue to exist?
This is not to say that some change is not evident, if compared with the recent, and terrible, past of the United States. For many people in the United States, it is a relief to have someone like Eric Holder as Attorney General in place of Alberto González.
Petrich: There are many unknown factors…
Alarcón: Look, the new administration has not even taken office. What has happened is an important change in a single aspect of power in the U.S., that is to say in the executive branch. In the Congress, the Democrats increased their majorities. The numbers of (Democratic) state governors increased. In the northeast of the country they experienced an overwhelming victory, although this is not to say that all of those elected will be agents of change. When Obama takes office, given all of the political forces and currents, he will face a difficult situation.

Impossible to prevent the fall of the empire

Petrich: Regarding Cuban expectations, will there be greater space for political dialogue and diplomacy?
Alarcón: The truth is there has always been room for discreet dialogue and private discussion. A discreet form of diplomacy was maintained and proved itself useful until the arrival of little Bush and his incredible team.
Look at the interview granted by President Raúl Castro to Sean Penn (interview conducted by the U.S. actor, published in the December edition of The Nation.) Raúl pointed out a very interesting detail that is not at all secret: that there has been a systematic dialogue between Cuban and U.S. military officials since 1994 in Guantánamo, the point at which the hostility between the two countries is greatest, at which there are two flags, with a fence between them, and troops on both sides. There, they talk.
Petrich: So then, are there possibilities to re suscitate such dialogue?
Alarcón: Yes, provided that Obama is able to instill a commitment towards multilateralism in place of unilateralism; if the United States displays a more rational attitude, one that would be more peaceful and modest. The United States no longer is the hegemonic superpower that can decide things by itself. The world has changed. It is no longer realistic to attempt to impose U.S. hegemony and uphold an imperial project. That crazy perspective is what carried the U.S. to Iraq, to Afghanistan, and to international isolation.
They are not the owners of the world and they never will be again. They were close to being that at the end of the Second World War, at the onset of the Cold War. When the Cuban Revolution triumphed they were able to isolate us. Not any more.
Petrich: Concretely, in Latin America, what will change with Obama, trade, the Free Trade Area of the Americas and Plan Colombia?
Alarcón: They should look for the best museum that they can find to put the FTAA on display. The new government in Washington has as some of its biggest supporters the trade union movement, the very workers who have been struggling against the free trade agreements.
Latin America anticipated the United States in its criticism of the neoliberal agenda by electing Chávez in Venezuela, Lula in Brazil, Evo (Morales) in Bolivia, etc. The challenge to the U.S. now is to establish normal relations that are respectful of such processes. An accommodation with Cuba will be an important piece of any new relationship with Latin America, and this has been stated by all of the leaders in the region. I would not ask so much; rather I would accept simply that they recognize that Latin America began to change before they did.
Petrich: If Obama were to make a significant gesture towards normalizing relations, how would Cuba respond?
Alarcón: We would thank him for correcting an error that has lasted fifty years.

  Translation by Louis Head, Cuba Research & Analysis Group, Albuquerque, New Mexico