One month after President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, the island’s leaders have made clear how they want the new relationship to grow — not very fast.
Last week’s seventh Communist Party Congress was a clear indicator that Cuba’s leaders aren’t going to move at the same pace as the Obama administration.
Robert Muse, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney involved in Cuban issues, said Cuba’s leaders have been consistent in their message since Obama began to normalize relations nearly a year and a half ago.
“It’s amazing how people aren’t listening to them,” he said. “Cuba is irrevocably a socialist nation.”
Supposed to be held every five years, the party plenary is usually gaveled in when the government feels a need to remind Cubans of the rules of the island’s political game.
The latest party featured a surprise appearance by former Cuban President Fidel Castro, who had earlier blasted Obama’s trip.
It also voted Raúl Castro back as the head of the Cuban Communist Party, meaning he could hold the party position — at least as powerful as the presidency — even if he keeps his word and steps down as the official head of state in 2018.
Raúl Castro reminded the gathering that the United States is still “the enemy.”
Delegates reappointed Machado Ventura, 85, known as an enforcer of communist orthodoxy, as party secretary. And the Congress’s 1,000 delegates voted for changes in the Cuban constitution that strengthened the party and barred the island’s nascent private sector from the “concentration of wealth.”
Still, Cuba’s leaders have to balance their devotion to orthodoxy and the aspirations of the Cuban people, many of whom treated Obama as a rock star during his visit.
Some of Cuba’s resistance to change has been passive — it simply hasn’t taken advantage of most of the opportunities Obama offered to increase partnerships and trade, still limited by the U.S. economic embargo that only Congress can end.
Cuba has agreed to re-establish direct U.S. flights to the island and to allow American hotelier Starwood to refurbish and run three Havana hotels.
But outside of the tourism sector, which Cuba opened to foreign companies when the Soviet Union collapsed, not many deals have been made.
“If the Cuban government sees that an opportunity will likely generate new revenues for its tourism sector, that is likely to be entertained,” said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.
Kavulich said if an offer “is not perceived to create revenues or has a political context to it,” like Obama’s move to allow Americans to help Cuban entrepreneurs, “progress is not going to be made.”
Kavulich’s company website has countdown clocks on how much longer Raúl Castro and Obama will remain in power in their respective nations. He said members of Congress, lobbyists and advocates must realize that the nature of U.S.-Cuba relations will depend less “on the next occupant of the White House … than what Cuba has accepted or rejected.”