Change Through Empowerment: A Half-Century of Cuba-U.S. Relations

On the one-year anniversary of “D17,” the second of a two-part essay exploring what has and will constitute “normal relations” between the U.S. and Cuba.

December 17, 2015

Cuban President Raúl Castro at the 2015 OAS meeting (Amanda Voisard/Flickr)

Today marks one year since Raúl Castro and Barack Obama announced the restoration of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the US after a half century of hostility. It was, by most accounts, a "historic" moment, followed in the ensuing months by events long dismissed as impossible: reopened embassies, presidential handshakes, new trade and travel opportunities. But one year after "D17," some of the most difficult questions shaping the future of Cuba-US relations remain not just unanswered but fundamentally unaddressed - what will become of the embargo? Will U.S. efforts to steer Cuban politics and society at last bear fruit? In the last installment of a two-part report, the historian and renowned Cuba scholar Louis Pérez, Jr. sets the "historic" against the backdrop of history to ask: what, in fact, has changed in Cuba-US relations? Professor Pérez's first installment can be found here.

- The Editors

By the early 2000s, the efficacy of the paradigm of economic sanctions and political isolation as the policy framework for regime change in Cuba could no longer stand up to close scrutiny.  The Castro government had survived the worst years of the post-Soviet crisis and endured the years of the severest U.S. sanctions.  A new relationship with Venezuela had relieved the island’s most pressing energy needs.  Cuba had completed, uneventfully, a transition of political leadership from Fidel to Raúl.  For all but the most intractable hardline defenders of political isolation and economic sanctions, the rationale for a change of policy was as self-evident as it was self-explanatory.  “There’s nothing more naive,” candidate Barack Obama insisted in May 2008, “than continuing a policy that has failed for decades.”  And to the point:  “It’s time for a new strategy.”

The momentous announcements of December 17, 2014 outlined the framework for the “new strategy.”  The United States, President Obama affirmed, could not “keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result,” hence, the President determined, it was time to “end an outdated approach” and “to try something different.”  The old policy, the President asserted, “hasn’t worked.” Obama repeated the argument one month later in his January 2015 State of the Union address:  “In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date.  When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new.” In Jamaica, en route to the April 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama, the President again explained his thinking: “We don’t want to be imprisoned by the past.  When something doesn’t work for 50 years, you don’t just keep on doing it; you try something new.”

The Obama administration brought a new lucidity to U.S. policy, informed with a far more nuanced understanding of the perils of a policy seeking regime change through economic ruin and political collapse.  It was counter-intuitive and indeed counter-productive, the administration understood, to seek regime change through civil conflict and social turmoil. As Obama explained:

“It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse.  Even if that worked— and it hasn’t for 50 years— we know from hard-earned experience that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos… We should not allow U.S. sanctions to add to the burden of Cuban citizens that we seek to help.”

All in all, a long distance from Representative Torricelli’s determination to “wreak havoc in Cuba.”


To abandon “something that hasn’t worked” for 55 years and instead “try something new” spoke to an eminently rational logic, of course.  But it’s also true that power tends to assemble the parameters of logic in accordance with its needs.  What had not “worked” was the use of political isolation and economic sanctions to achieve regime change, the overriding purpose to which 55 years of U.S. policy was given.  Rapprochement was the form that trying “something new” assumed, less a change of ends than one of means: from a punitive policy devised to impoverish the Cuban people into rebellion to a benign policy designed to empower the Cuban people as agents of reform.  The telling phrase of the new policy took hold early: “to empower the Cuban people.”  Not a changed relationship with the government of Cuba, but a changed relationship with the people of Cuba– what the Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, explained to the Harvard Crimson as “extending a hand to the Cuban people.” A portentous distinction, to be sure, one that implied more than a semantic detail, and invited the inference that to try something new meant to try a new way to initiate regime change.

The purport of U.S. policy was made explicit in the first sentence of President Obama’s December 17 announcement:  “Today the United States is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba.” To engage the Cuban people, the President indicated weeks later at his year-end press conference, offered “the best prospect then of leading to greater freedom, greater self-determination on the part of the Cuban people…Through engagement, we have a better chance of bringing about change than we would have otherwise…And the more the Cuban people see what’s possible, the more interested they are going to be in change.” The renewal of diplomatic relations, Secretary of State John Kerry exulted, promised “the beginning of a new era of a new relationship with the people of Cuba.”

“We want to try and go directly to the Cuban people,” Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson explained to Congress.  “I believe that we also will get some things that matter in opening our embassy and hopefully the ability to travel throughout the country and see more people, and support more people.”  The United States, Jacobson emphasized, was “committed to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, which will allow us to more effectively represent U.S. interests and increase engagement with the Cuban people,” a way “to have conversations” with the Cuban people, with “as many of the 11 million Cubans as we can.” Among the “11 million Cubans” the United States identified for empowerment were — Jacobson indicated—“cuenta propistas (the self-employed), emerging private sector, whether it is artists, cultural figures, or whether it is human rights activists, emerging independent media voice, bloggers, journalists.” There were very targeted sectors of the “Cuban people” indeed.

The proposition of engagement as a means to “empower” the Cubans loomed large in the new policy narratives.  “We strongly believe,” Secretary Jacobson insisted, “that having an embassy in Havana will enable us to do more things that help us more effectively empower the Cuban people.”  At another point Jacobson contended that, “Our efforts are to empower the Cuban people to take their lives into their own hands.” The United States, the Department of State pledged, “will remain focused on empowering the Cuban people and supporting the emergence of a democratic, prosperous, and stable Cuba.” State Department Counselor Thomas Shannon emphasized that “our desire and hope [are] that the Cuban people will know the benefits of liberty and become the sovereigns of their own destiny.” Meanwhile, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Tomasz Malinowski, summarized the U.S.’s purpose succinctly: “The empowerment of the Cuban people must be the bedrock of our new policy towards Cuba, and it will be.”

The President’s announcement of December 17 thus represented a significant reset of a 55-year-old policy protocol.  “Our previous approach to relations with Cuba over a half century,” explained Jacobson, “though rooted in the best of intentions, failed to empower the Cuban people…As a result, unfortunately and unintentionally, those most deprived were the Cuban people.” (“Unfortunately,” true; “unintentionally,” false.)  “After 50 years of experience with the embargo,” explained Malinowski, “we have to face the hard truth that it has not weakened the repressive apparatus of the Castro government.  It has not strengthened Cuba’s civil society.  It has not given us the leverage we need to press for change.” The Americans envisioned the emergence of “civil society” as a means of U.S. influence, explained Daniel Erikson of the Office of Cuban Affairs, a way to “increase U.S. leverage on the island.”    


The salient facets of American intent stood in sharp relief as a matter of historical continuity. The United States pursued normalization of relations as a matter of instrumental purpose: to provide moral support and material assistance as a means to “empower” Cubans to act on behalf of the change the Americans deemed to be in their best interest, to achieve from within what could not be accomplished from without. This was the interior meaning of “trying something new.”  If not exactly change of regime, in the short run, then change in the regime, in the long run—“to contribute to the democratic development and prosperity of the country,” explained the White House. “We would hope to bring about change in the regime,” Secretary Jacobson acknowledged.  “And simultaneously, we would hope to empower the Cuban people to be able to make that change.” The U.S. commitment to support the “emerging private sector in Cuba,” Jacobson predicted, would result in “many more of these entrepreneurs emerging” as well as the hope that they would “be able to prosper and expand and be agents for change within Cuba.”

“Empowerment” contemplated a strategy designed to drive a wedge between the Cuban people and the Cuban government, to wean the Cuban people off their “dependence” on the State by subsidizing the emergence of a market economy and the creation of a civil society. The expectation was that the Cuban people would in this way be “empowered” to act in defense of private economic interests, and thereupon to serve as agents of political change.  “The more people who are not reliant on the state for their economic future,” suggested Jacobson, “[free to] make their own economic decisions, I think politically and economically, the more it empowers people.”

The United States, Secretary Malinowski indicated, favored those policies in which “the Cuban people will be less dependent on their government and will have more power to shape their future.  That is what we hope will happen.”  One of the virtues of the black market in Cuba, Malinowski suggested, was that people, “in addition to enriching themselves, become more independent, and less dependent on the state.” It was with a sense of foreboding to ponder the implications of comments made in 2015 by Senator Ben Cardin on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “U.S. policy is directly responsible for helping the Cuban people improve their living conditions and achieve a new degree of independence from the Cuban government,” Cardin said. The proposition of the United States “helping the Cuban people” achieve their “independence from the Cuban government” was breathtaking.  



The United States contemplated a “long view” of regime change, a strategy to engage in a politics of change as a process over time rather than an “event” of sudden collapse.  Normalization of relations offered a means to obtain change in Cuba, if not in the short run, then certainly in the course of time.  “Nobody expects Cuba to be transformed overnight,” President Obama cautioned. Change in Cuba “is going to take time,” Secretary of State Kerry predicted, adding that it would be “unrealistic to expect normalizing relations to have, in a short term, a transformational impact.” Secretary Malinowski was lucid: “Authoritarian regimes don’t just give up their power voluntarily.”  Rather, in Malinowski’s view, change would come by “empowering people to demand change.” In the case of Cuba, this meant “making the Cuban people less dependent on the Cuban state for their livelihood…through information coming from the outside, and less control by the Cuban state.” And a large dose of international pressure.

The “change in regime” as contemplated by the United States implied assistance for entrepreneurial projects, the expansion of telecommunication facilities, expanded access to information, support for new technology infrastructure, and promotion of civil society.  The Treasury Department’s removal of limits on remittances, announced in September 2015, was designed as a means of “empowering Cubans with opportunities for self-employment, and in turn strengthening independent civil society.” The revision of regulatory policies to allow increased financial support for the emerging private sector, explained John Smith, Deputy Director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, was meant to help “the Cuban people freely determine their own future,” based on the proposition that by facilitating “the flow of authorized funds directly to the Cuban people to help promote self-employment and increased private property ownership”  civil society would be “strengthened.” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration Matthew Borman explained the new regulations as a way “to empower the nascent Cuban private sector by supporting private economic activity” and “improve [Cubans’] living standards and gain greater economic independence from the state.” By authorizing American companies to engage in telecommunications sales, Secretary Jacobson affirmed, “and acting to get information into Cuba, to work with entrepreneurs . . . we can begin to increase the pace at which people separate themselves from the state.” Asked how the United States would measure progress made under the new policy, Under Secretary of Commerce Stefan Selig responded:  “Fundamentally, have we supported and empowered the Cuban people?  Have we put them on the path to help build their nascent private sector, and given them greater economic independence from the state?”

A 1901 political cartoon (Puck)

The “license” of power is perhaps impossible to revoke.  It informs the very history from which the powerful obtain moral validation, from which the exercise of power assumes such utter common-place normality as to take on the appearance of the natural order of things, hardly noticed at all except as a confirmation that all is right in the world.  Cuba-U.S. relations have been conditioned by nearly 200 years of a history in which the warrant of entitlement has defined the very premise of U.S. policy.  The United States presumes authority to manage Cuban internal affairs, to seek to shape outcomes and to influence the course of events, a stance informed with the moral conviction that the Americans have the authority— indeed, the duty, to guide the affairs of Cubans for their own best interests— and further, that the Cubans have the obligation to accede to U.S. guidance.  The practice has deep historical antecedents, and in the course of time has developed into something of a default stance from which the United States has presumed to engage Cuba.  “If we engage,” President Obama explained to CNN’s Candy Crowley, “we have the opportunity to influence the course of events at a time when there’s going to be some generational change in that country.  And I think we should seize it and I intend to do so.” Secretary of State Kerry advanced the same argument, indicating that rapprochement “will enhance our ability to have a positive impact on events inside Cuba and to help improve the lives of the Cuban people.”

The Cubans have engaged the process of normalization within a paradigm of mutual respect, in the words of Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, “on the basis of respect and equality, without any prejudice to the independence and sovereignty of Cuba, and without any interference in our internal affairs.”

The United States embarked upon normalization to change Cuba, to restructure the economy, to remake its political system, to reorganize the character of Cuban society, all in the guise of righteous motive and noble purpose; the exercise of power represented as the performance of beneficent intent and deeds of disinterested ideals, in the best interest of the Cuban people, for their own good.  The United States, Jacobson explained to Congress, wished to help the Cuban people “to be able to do what they wish.  To be able to make their own decisions,” to enable “the Cuban people to freely determine their own future,” and prepare them “to take their lives into their own hands.”

Under Secretary of Commerce Stefan Selig expressed the desire “to see if we can do the right thing for the Cuban people… to create freedom, and prosperity, to bring people out of poverty …to really help.” Normalization, Secretary Kerry predicted, “will contribute to an empowering [and] helping the Cuban population.” And Kerry at another point: “We remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas, practice their faith; where the commitment to economic and social justice is realized more fully; where institutions are answerable to those they serve; and where civil society is independent and allowed to flourish.”

The United States purports to lift Cuba up from a state of backwardness–to assist in “the modernization of the Cuban economy,” Secretary Jacobson indicated, specifically to bring Cuba into the modern world.  “Through a policy of engagement,” explained President Obama on December 17, 2014, “we can more effectively . . . help the Cuban people help themselves as they move into the 21st century.” A “talking point” was born: to “help the Cuban people move into the 21st century,” as Secretary Jacobson affirmed; or, as Deputy Assistant Secretary Borman repeated, “to bring the Cuban people into the 21st century.”

These are recurring tropes deeply inscribed in the assumptions that have guided U.S. policy all throughout the twentieth century.  The objective of the U.S. military occupation of 1899-1902, the United States claimed, was to bring Cuba into the twentieth century, according to papers from the Library of Congress.  “We are dealing with a race that has steadily been going down for a hundred years,” Governor General Leonard Wood explained in 1900 as he justified the the need for U.S. occupation, “and into which we have to infuse new life, new principles and new methods of doing things.” In 1933, when Ambassador Sumner Welles arrived to Cuba, he explained his motivations similarly: “to assist the Cuban people themselves to solve the political crisis which had developed and to provide, by cooperation between our two Governments, a means for the rehabilitation of Cuba’s national economy.”  Welles ultimately “solved” the Cuban political crisis by aiding and abetting the rise of Colonel Fulgencio Batista.

Today Cubans face a new challenge: to defend the historic project of self-determination and national sovereignty under circumstances of normal relations, in which the Americans have presumed the condition of “normal” as the environment in which to effect change in Cuba.  In other words, Cuba engages the United States defending historic claims to national sovereignty and self-determination while the United States renews relations with Cuba determined to “bring about change in the regime.”  These two versions of “normal relations” will be difficult to reconcile, and indeed raise the specter of the continuation of the adversarial tensions of the last 50 years, only now in a different form and as a new phase.  In fact, there are no usable models for “normal relations.” What has constituted “normal” in nearly 200 years of Cuba-U.S. relations has been the presumption of U.S. entitlement to impose its will on Cuba.  The historic model of “normal relations” casts the United States as the arbiter of Cuban destiny— always in the name of what “best serves” the interests of the Cuban people.  In tone and tenor, in hubris and chutzpah, in the breezy way that self-righteous certainty professes selfless moral purpose— “the people of Cuba would be best served”— the American purpose reenacts its history.  Plus ça change, plus c'est la meme…

Louis A. Pérez, Jr. is the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History and Director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author of, among others, Cuba in the American Imagination: Metaphor and the Imperial Ethos(UNC Press 2011) and The Structure of Cuban History: Meanings and Purposes of the Past (UNC Press 2013), which has just been reissued in paperback.

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