December 17, 2014

This week in North Philly Notes, Yolanda Prieto, author of The Cubans of Union City discusses President Obama’s landmark Cuban policy change, while reflecting on her own experiences as a Cuban American.

As a Cuban American who favors the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, I choked up with emotion when watching President Obama’s historic television address on December 17, 2014 announcing that he was changing the policy of isolation towards Cuba. After all, Obama explained, more than 50 years of acrimony between the two countries had not accomplished anything. Instead, engagement could lead to a more fruitful relationship, and it could possibly bring economic improvements and more freedoms to the Cuban people. Americans could also travel to Cuba under a broader range of categories, which could generate more contact and understanding between the two countries. These changes would happen even though the economic embargo, imposed by the United States on Cuba in 1962, would remain in place. To lift the embargo, Congress would have to repeal the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, which strengthened and extended the existing embargo on the island. Regarding the embargo, Obama urged lawmakers in his speech to lift it because the law was anachronistic and it no longer served any real purpose.

At exactly the same time, President Raul Castro made the same announcement on Cuban television. In both countries, the news was received with great surprise. The road ahead would be difficult, but these steps marked a historic beginning.

Cubans of Union CityIn Cuba, people were elated. Praise for President Barack Obama abounded, and American flags were displayed on balconies and bike taxis. In Miami, where most Cubans outside of Cuba reside, the reaction was mixed. Many Cubans approved of President Obama’s plans, but many others disapproved. Relations with Cuba, they think, would only serve to enrich the coffers of the Cuban government in Havana.  But the majority of Miami Cubans favor normalization of relations. A survey conducted by Bendixen and Armandi International in March, 2015 revealed that 51 percent of Cuban Americans support the efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, while 49 percent do not. Approval for the politics of normalization is growing among Cubans who do not live in Miami; 69 percent of Cuban Americans who live outside of Miami support normalization.

Although approval is high among younger generations of Cuban Americans, it is declining among the older population. Disapproval is also vociferous among Cuban American Congress members. In Cuba, some dissidents oppose normalization while others welcome it. It is also possible that some in the Cuban government do not agree, especially those hard-liners that see any contact with the United States as detrimental to Cuba.

What led to this change in the American position toward Cuba? According to William Leogrande and Peter Kornbluh’s book Back Channel to Cuba, there has been ongoing, secret, often surprising, dialogue between Washington and Havana. Along with the invasions, covert operations, and assassination plots, there have been efforts at rapprochement and reconciliation. However, most of these efforts had fallen through the cracks. Discussions between the two governments have been largely limited to specific problems, mainly in times of crisis, such as migration talks and more recently, talks about drug trafficking.

Recently, there were rumors that President Obama might tackle the U.S.-Cuba relations issue during his second term. Many believed that the incarceration of Alan Gross, the American contractor employed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), was the main obstacle to a change in policy. He was arrested in Cuba in 2009 and then prosecuted in 2011 for bringing sophisticated telecommunications equipment into the island against Cuban law.  At the same time, there were three Cubans jailed in the United States. They were part of the Cuban Five, a group of Cuban nationals convicted in Miami in 2001 for conspiring to commit espionage and for conspiring to commit murder. Two had already been released.

The December 17. 2014 announcements were preceded by 18 months of secret talks between U.S. and Cuban officials.  They met in Canada and in the Vatican. Canadians helped, as did Pope Francis, who wrote letters to Obama and Castro urging them to work for an end to the impasse. Finally, on December 17, Cuba and the United States announced that they had agreed to exchange prisoners: Cuba would free Alan Gross and a high-level Cuban working for the Americans serving time in Cuba for espionage. The United States would in turn free the three jailed Cubans. Additionally, Cuba would free 53 Cuban political prisoners.

Since December 17, 2014 there have been talks between U.S. and Cuban officials to work out the details of normalization of diplomatic relations. There have been two meetings in Havana and two in Washington, with an additional one scheduled for May 21 in Washington. One topic of concern has been the reopening of the embassies. Simultaneously, a flurry of activity has taken place. Trips and delegations of politicians, businessmen, artists, have arrived in Cuba looking for their space in this new climate. Representative Nancy Pelosi went down with a delegation early this year. Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York, visited the island in April accompanied by business leaders, including some executives from pharmaceutical companies. A number of officials, from government to private industry are urging that the embargo be lifted to completely normalize relations. Other major changes have taken place or are in the works. For example, President Obama recommended that Cuba be removed from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism. There have been advances in the area of telecommunications, banking, trade, U.S. exports to the private sector in Cuba, and travel, both by air and sea.

Among recent visitors was French President Francois Hollande who met with Raul and Fidel Castro.  He also urged the United States Congress to lift the embargo.  More recently, Raul Castro met with Pope Francis at the Vatican. The reason for his visit was to thank the Pope for his efforts to promote rapprochement between Cuba and the United States and to prepare the way for the upcoming visit of the Pontiff to the island in September, 2015.

Who benefits from normalization? First and foremost, the Cuban people. One expectation is the increasing economic development of Cuba through investment and trade. Hopefully, ordinary Cubans will gain through an improvement of the economic situation, both in terms of greater possibilities for consumption and possibly the creation of jobs, especially for the poor, who lack material resources due to meager salaries and lack of money through remittances from relatives abroad. The very poor and non-whites are often the ones who do not have family in the United States. There is also a very positive effect on Latin American regional relations. Obama probably had that in mind all along, as the Summit of the Americas in Panama revealed. Most Latin American countries wanted the return of Cuba to the Latin American family. The United States had opposed that. The meetings in Panama showed how the change in the U.S. position positively altered the climate among all nations.

Finally, these changes could be very beneficial for the Catholic Church, other religious groups, and other members of Cuba’s civil society. The Catholic Church already participated in talks with the government in 2010 to release political prisoners. Before and after those talks, the Catholic Church and the government have maintained a constructive dialogue. In the words of Havana’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega, “for the church, the improvement of bilateral relations will be very beneficial… It will be easier to obtain help that we receive from other world churches to do our charity work in Cuba. The dialogue between church and state will not be broken, it will continue.”

Normalization of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States will not be an easy journey. For one thing, the U.S. embargo of Cuba presents legal obstacles to many of the changes that the two governments want to implement. But the process has already started, and it seems that there is no way back.

Ordinary Poverty: A Little Food and Cold Storage Blog

Temple University Press author William DiFazio (Ordinary Poverty) addresses the inequalities of current economic crisis in this blog entry

1674_reg“I ain’t got no boom,” a young, new mother responded to my question on how she was doing as a result of the economic boom of the Clinton years. As I described in Ordinary Poverty the economic boom of the 1990’s had bypassed the poor in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn and the United States. We now know that the economic bubbles of 2000 and 2007 would burst and the “new economy” would never really happen, it was a fiction, the economists and finance capitalists were wrong and now instead of endless prosperity we have a world crisis in capitalism and the whole country has “no boom.”

While the President and his cabinet focus on bailing out the banks and the auto industry the massive inequality in the United States is ignored. Like the Titanic the captains of the economy ignore the iceberg of inequality and the number of poor locked in steerage is swelling as more and more middle class people join them destined to sink with the economy. This inequality is an important cause of the current crisis in capitalism; 70% of the US economy is based on shopping but Americans cannot consume as they did in the past because for almost forty years wages haven’t kept up with prices even with the supposedly low inflation rates and only massive debt gave them the appearance of still being middle class. With credit closed to the middle classes more of them are becoming poor, Ordinary Poverty is now about them as well. The supposedly “lazy” poor also worked harder at lower and lower wages, including people on welfare. They are forced to cheat because the welfare grant is insufficient for the poor to live on. The welfare grant in New York State for the last eighteen years is $291 per month for a family of three; though Governor Paterson has proposed a 10% increase the first in almost two decades but it’s too little too late. The current crisis in capitalism has made the lives of the poor more difficult as soup kitchens and food pantries are increasingly overwhelmed by an increasing client base. St. John’s Bread & Life, where much of Ordinary Poverty takes place is feeding almost 1,300 people a day and has a rotating, monthly clientele in its food pantry of 15,000 people. Thus, as more and more people show up for meals and donations decline St. John’s Bread & Life is increasingly in debt. The homeless population is exploding, moving into tent cities, like the Hoovervilles of the Great Depression and in RV’s, once recreational vehicles for a summer vacation are now permanent housing for people who once were middle class. These newly poor are college educated, newly unemployed or underemployed many who of them have walked away from their foreclosed houses.

As the crises escalated the first African American President was finally elected but President Obama as he spends trillions of dollars trying to bail out the banks, AIG and the automobile industry, barely has an extra dollar to spend on the poor. He also acts as if the growing inequality of the last forty years has had no part in this crisis. After all, since Moynihan wrote The Negro Family Study, in 1965 and he explained that poverty was a racial and psychological problem, the result of the “tangle of pathology” of the deteriorating Negro family structure and that it was not the result of the failures of American capitalism to provide jobs with above poverty wages to tens of millions of American workers. Of course, now we know that Moynihan was wrong though he served as the source of conservative ideology on poverty. In reality welfare was a cheap solution to the labor force problems in the United States and legitimated the refusal of corporations to pay higher wages. Instead it replaced workers with technology and by shipping jobs to developing countries where non-union workers were paid the lowest wages and given no benefits. For American workers instead of higher wages, credit cards and debt were exchanged for an imagined higher standard of living. If the labor market inequality that has plagued the poor, the working and middle classes was taken seriously by President Obama, Citibank, AIG, Bank of America and General Motors who have been bailed out by the government would not be allowed to lay-off workers or cut wages and benefits. Instead, both the corporate and government solution is to save business by firing workers and cutting the wages of those who still have their jobs. If they really understood the place of inequality in all of this they would raise wages and benefits so that a real economic stimulus would be accomplished. Instead, Obama’s economic experts Geithner and Summers increase inequality because wages cannot be raised, yet they want consumers to spend as if wages don’t matter which just increases their debt and causing more and more poverty, does. These once middle class people now show up at soup kitchens and food pantries. Obama’s solutions are just the newest version of Finance capital’s mantra that the financial profits of the rich are based on the increased debt of ordinary people. As a result of the continuation of capitalism real politics, dressed up with Obama’s “Yes we can,” ideology and with no real change results in more and more middle and working class people sinking into poverty, which continues to become evermore ordinary and now they too have only “a little food and cold storage.”

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