Havana and Washington: On African Time?

Was it ever in doubt that the first African American president of the United States would wish to crown his legacy by normalizing relations with the most African island in the Americas? Few among us Cuba-watchers doubted that, should Barack Obama secure a second term, it would only be a matter of time before moves to repair the rift between Havana and Washington began in earnest. Blood-ties aside, US business interests have watched in frustration as economic rivals such as China made increasing inroads into the Cuban economy. But given the prime position that Africa has held in Cuba’s foreign policy ever since Che Guevara’s first visits to newly-independent countries in 1959 and 1965, what does the latest thaw in diplomatic ties between Havana and Washington mean for the continent?

It all depends on how extensive and far-reaching the changes become. For instance, should the economic embargo or Helms-Burton Act be dismantled, this would open the way for countries such as South Africa, which have long provided economic assistance to Cuba under the umbrella of development, to pursue more direct trade and investment agreements. And since South Africa and, old Cuban ally, Angola are joined in a friendly economic and cultural rivalry, it surely wouldn’t be long before the MPLA would appeal to the ties of history to lay claim to most-favoured nation status.

As for whether the countless urban and rural communities in Africa would continue to benefit from the thousands of Cuban doctors providing sorely needed medical services, much depends on the rival opportunities that might be created. Under current conditions, there are important perks and benefits that accrue to Cuban healthcare workers who opt to take up service posts overseas. At the same time, there have been accusations that medical internationalism has undermined the formally high standards of healthcare provision at home, as highly trained personnel seek out the greater compensation attached to, say, staffing a clinic in Luanda or fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone. Prior to the round of salary increases for medical personnel in 2014, the average salary for doctors working domestically was $30, compared to the $200 to $1000 earned by their counterparts stationed outside the country. However, an increase in economic opportunities on the island could change all of that, if increasing investment were to lead to higher salaries and a wider range of opportunities linked, for instance, to the almost certain development of the medical tourism industry in Cuba.

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Any initial shortfall in the number of internationalist doctors, on the other hand, could eventually be remedied so long as Cuba continued, or even ramped up, its medical training programme for overseas students. This is perhaps the most important aspect of Cuba’s medical diplomacy, and the one that African nations should be most motivated to safeguard.

For the African diaspora, especially African Americans, the thaw in relations could see a rekindling and even a strengthening of the pre-Cold War relationship that Lisa Brock and Digna Casteñada Fuertes portrayed in their 1998 book Between Race and Empire: African-Americans and Cubans before the Cuban Revolution. And, at the very least, Afro-Cubans could hope for easy access to affordable beauty products tailored to their needs, and bid farewell to the demeaning practice of begging for Dark and Lovely and so on from friends and relatives living abroad.

Of course, courting the support of black Americans was an important ideological strategy in the early days of the Cuban Revolution. It backfired with some (Eldridge Cleaver wasn’t won round, to put it mildly); but Assata Shakur, the first woman on the FBI’s list of most wanted terrorists, has been quietly living as a political exile on the island for the past thirty years. It is hard to imagine that any meaningful process of repairing diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States in these post-911 times could proceed without Shakur’s extradition. But what would the handing over by Havana of this famous ‘cause celebre’ of Black Nationalism to the U.S. authorities mean for the Obama legacy? There is always a heavy price to pay for peace. The question that all of us need to ask ourselves, in the wake of Ferguson, is whether this sixty-seven year old black woman, wanted for murder, is likely to get a fair hearing.

In his announcement of the major shift in Washington’s policy for Cuba, Obama referred to the “unique relationship, at once family and foe,” and this is a dynamic that African nations, with their colonial histories and concomitant legacies, know only too well. In that regard, Havana and Washington are finally operating on African time.

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Christabelle Peters

Christabelle Peters is Leverhulme fellow at the University of Warwick and author of ‘Cuban Identity and the Angolan Experience’ (2014).

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