Barack Obama’s arrival in Cuba will mark the first visit by a United States president to the island since Calvin Coolidge went in 1928. His trip follows the reopening of diplomatic relations with Cuba on 17 December 2014 and various other steps taken to normalise relations — a welcome change after decades of hostility that include an ongoing economic blockade, sponsored invasions, and terrorist attacks.
So far, everything seems to indicate a warm reception for Obama from most Cubans. But he is likely to be received with reservations, if not outright hostility, by pro-US right-wing dissidents on the island. The politics of this right wing — both on the island and abroad — that has long curried the favour of Washington elites is rooted in a perspective called “Platismo”.
The origin of the term goes back to 1901, when the first constituent assembly of the island was forced to accept an amendment to the Cuban constitution authored by US senator Orville Platt giving the United States the legal right to intervene in the country’s internal affairs. For the next thirty-three years, the United States, with the explicit support of many Cuban Platista politicians, availed itself of this license repeatedly, influencing policy under the threat of military occupation — a threat it carried out on several occasions. In today’s Cuba, self-described dissidents are organised in small, nonviolent groups and individually they range from the hard right to moderate Christian Democrats and social democrats on the left. A new left, critical current has also emerged, whose proponents do not call themselves dissidents, in part because of their fear of being associated with Miami and Washington.
Right-wing dissidents oppose the restoration of diplomatic relations with the United States and want the economic blockade to continue, while many dissidents to their left support the resumption of normal relations, though this support is often conditioned on the Cuban government granting political and economic concessions in return. Most of these liberal dissidents do not oppose the blockade on principle (whether national self-determination or anti-imperialism), but because they see its effects to be counterproductive, or consider the whole strategy a failure. That is why these liberal and social-democratic dissidents have been likely to slide into Platismo, although generally of a milder variety than their right-wing counterparts. They see the US as a source of support that they can use and discard at their convenience and on their own terms.
Since the revolution, the United States has tried to channel Cuban Platismo into a variety of organizations, and in diverse ways. The anti-Castro terrorist organizations that accepted arms and funding from the US government did so on at least implicitly Platista grounds. Overt, public efforts to oppose the Cuban government have also been cast in the mould of Platismo. US government agencies have also sought to establish secret ties with elements of the Cuban opposition. Most serious of all, of course, is the secret financing that the US government has provided to an undetermined number of Cuban opposition forces. Survive Those receiving such subsidies defend themselves by pointing to the undeniable fact that it is difficult to survive as an oppositionist in a country like Cuba. Besides extensive surveillance and outright repression, the government manages access to higher education, and, until recently, virtually all sources of employment. It is not surprising that the Cuban government has seized the issue of both real and imagined American government aid to the dissidents as a favourite battering ram against the opposition. But faithful to its history, the Cuban government has responded to the challenge of a peaceful, nonviolent dissidence with police and administrative repression.
Financial aid from the US government, and from formally non-governmental organisations financed by the state, such as Freedom House, has not only compromised the independence of opposition groups in Cuba, but has also likely diverted those groups away from organising other Cubans and instead promoted practices such as making statements to the foreign press and expecting their monthly checks from the US. An organizing approach aiming at self-sufficiency, even under the difficult circumstances that prevail in the island, would give the dissidence a political independence and strength that they could not attain being reliant on foreign governments for their political and material survival. Cuban dissidents influenced by Platismo have argued that, in Cuba, the issue of national self-determination — or for that matter, the risk that their dependence on foreign government support poses to their own independence — is moot. Without democracy in Cuba, they argue, there is no possibility of national self-determination, and any objection to US government aid translates into an obstruction to the struggle for democracy in the island.
This is an obvious obfuscation of the issues at stake: historically, claims for the right to national self-determination have never been premised on internal democracy… The struggle against the structures of the one-party state and for the political and economic democratisation of Cuban society is endangered by dissidents who have embraced Platismo. It is, after all, an ideology that can only weaken Cuba’s political sovereignty and threatens to return the island to a pre-revolutionary neocolonial status — a condition that was transcended even if at the unnecessary price of the establishment of a one-party state. The commitment of many Platistas to the democracy they ostensibly defend has become even more questionable by their silence about or outright support for the US-backed coup attempted in Venezuela in 2002, and the one successfully executed in Honduras in 2009. In addition, the open Platismo of many dissidents has strategically harmed the anti-Castro cause by allowing the Cuban government to effectively portray its critics as servants of the United States to both national and international audiences.
Individuals and organisations persecuted by the Cuban government for peaceful political activity should be defended, even Platistas and those who advocate the restoration of the “free market” economy. The defence of democratic rights and civil liberties inside a system that rejects them is an obligation beyond fundamental political disagreements. That is an altogether different issue from supporting Platistas politically. President Obama’s visit is a step in the right direction of normalising US relations with Cuba. That is why he deserves to be welcomed with a recognition of his efforts to correct some of the wrongs of the US’s past foreign policies towards Cuba. But this recognition should not be confused with an undignified gratitude and even less with efforts to have him use the powers of the imperialist state over which he presides to press for the democratization of Cuba. That is a task for the Cuban people themselves, not Washington.
* Abridged from Jacobin magazine.