Reading mysteries in Havana

It takes two to salsa, but is this the cha-cha-cha of change in US-Cuba relations?

Cubans are moving more freely, travelling more frequently, and more of them are starting businesses and working independently, writes Bishara [AP]
Cubans are moving more freely, travelling more frequently, and more of them are starting businesses and working independently, writes Bishara [AP]

When it comes to Cuba I am out of practice on a number of fronts. Debilitating nights. Double Coronas. Disarming charm.

But not daunting mysteries, fictional or real. Once one makes peace with slow Internet connections, or intermittent (or even no) Internet connections, the re-emergence of “old-fashioned” ways, without the cyber distractions, is a blessing in disguise.

I’m reading “Havana Gold”, a tale of love, crime, poverty and corruption in a country that celebrates the first, eradicated the second, struggles with the third, and denies the fourth. 

I couldn’t tell you how it will all unfold in the novel and even less so in the country. I am still at the beginning, and so is the country, just starting a long, thrilling and perhaps painful journey towards change.

Some of those efforts are real and clear. Cuba was different than my last visit, a mere three months ago. And more of it is real, but invisible, at least to an outsider looking in.

But far more of that change remains in the realm of the wishful and wishful thinking. 

US denies ‘Cuban Twitter’ made to stir unrest

Mystery island

Cuba is an enigmatic place to its friends and foes, especially to its curious nemesis to the north. But it’s unravelling slowly and surely. With new players, new clues, and many twists and turns.

There is an officially declared, even mandated, new openness that allows Cubans to speak out about their issues, to criticise their economic system publicly, and their governing system, albeit privately, and delineate a better future.

Cubans of all walks of life, scholars, artists, activists, entrepreneurs, and representatives of the powers that be, are speaking out and we’ve been recording them for the next EMPIRE.

With more than a million and a half new cell phones making it to Cuban hands – many fitted with cameras – there’s better communication and louder chatter in the society.

That’s not to say Cubans are tweeting or Facebooking en masse. Internet and Wi-Fi are still a luxury for the few and the tourists.

Cubans are, however, moving more freely, travelling more frequently, and more of them are starting businesses and working independently.

How deep, how real, and how irreversible are the changes? Challenging questions, begging for answers.  

Will the answers open the way to new questions about Cuba’s relations with the United States, and Washington’s relations with Havana? 

Duplicity or irrationality

Last week, an investigation by the Associated Press revealed a new twist in the mystery involving USAID, an agency of the US government.

They’ve attempted to destabilise Cuba by setting up a fake Twitter network. Very typical of failed past US attempts to take down the Castros. 

Washington claims that its current policy is to cease and desist attempts at regime change in favour of watching Havana conduct its own reforms. It is not yet known if the covert actions by USAID were authorised from higher up, if they just went forward on automatic pilot, doing what they did because it’s what they do, or if it was a rogue operation. 

Cuba passes law to attract foreign investors

But the new information is certain to complicate another issue between the two nations: Alan Gross is in a Cuban jail, accused of being a US intelligence operative. Washington vehemently denied that he was an American agent. True, in the technical, limited sense that he was a “contractor”. But “contractor” here is a euphemism for more of the same. Gross had gone on a hunger strike by the time the new revelations were made public.

It doesn’t seem to me that the two governments have escalated the conflict into a newly divisive public spat. Hmm, that’s pretty suspicious if you ask me.

All of that adds new twists to a puzzling relationship – or worse, old twists. As one commentator observed: US policy towards Cuba is where logic goes to die.

The cha-cha-cha change?

In his first major foreign policy speech, President Barack Obama pledged to seek relations with US detractors on the basis of mutual interest and mutual respect. He promised to extend a hand to those who are willing to unclench their fist.

The Cubans were listening. Unlike many of their well-organised and bitter brethren in Miami, they were happy – at least they weren’t unhappy – to see Obama win, even if they were sceptical and cautious about his promise of change.

Cuba has had its own change of leadership, albeit between siblings, from Fidel Castro to Raul Castro.

The new el presidente immediately showed himself to be less ideological and more pragmatic. He pledged that he would serve only two terms. Not really a hard promise to make, as he’ll be 92 years old by then. More significantly, he spearheads a liberalisation and privatisation process, though limited and tight. 

It takes two to salsa. And so the two leaders began to allow for an ever so slightly closer dance between the two states. 

But are Washington and Havana dancing the cha-cha-cha of change, or merely dancing around the issues of real bilateral change – genuine normalisation.

We will provide a few more clues to this ongoing mystery on the next episode of EMPIRE. Stay tuned.

(As for the mystery novel, it ends with regrettable revelations.)

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.

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