American Soft Power: A Different Concern for Cuba

Logan Bronson, JHU:

Recently restored relations between the US and Cuba imply progress has been made on a Cold War policy that lingered far too long into the “post-Cold War” world.

Indeed, on December 17, 2014 the New York Times published an article online titled “U.S. to Restore Full Relations With Cuba, Eliminating Last Trace of Cold War Hostility,” [added emphasis] referring to the historic announcement made by Obama, and later Cuban President Raúl Castro.

The President’s intentions to open an embassy in Havana for the first time in over 50 years, after an even longer span of mistrust and hostility dating back Theodore Roosevelt’s administration and his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, and punctuated with events like the disastrous Bay of Pigs and precipitous Cuban Missile Crisis, marks a momentous change. Pope Francis played a large role in facilitating the bilateral discussions between the nations, which began in late 2013, and culminated in a prisoner exchange and the official declaration. While the embargo cannot be lifted without a vote from Congress and tourism will still technically remain illegal, America’s restrictions on remittances, travel and banking,” will be loosened. For its part, Cuba will increase Internet access and release additional political prisoners.[i]

Obama’s hopes are rooted in the potential for openness to translate into political freedom in Cuba, and underscored by the realization that frozen relations have failed to advance the interests of either nation. In the years following the recognized end of the Cold War, the US has readily engaged with other Communist nations and so in its attempts to isolate Cuba without committed global support, it soon became isolated itself in this regard. Seeing no change on the island in response to a singularly American policy proved it to be an ineffective one that had been founded on antiquated perspectives irrelevant to contemporary international politics: thus diplomacy with Cuba is a welcome and needed change.

Of course, with this change comes many new issues. The way they have manifested in Congress, as they tend to do, is via criticism of the President’s actions, predominantly taking the form of complaints that openness alone will not implant the political values America desires. New Jersey’s Senator Robert Menendez claims, “It is a fallacy that Cuba will reform just because the American president believes that if he extends his hand in peace, that the Castro brothers suddenly will unclench their fists.”[ii]

A different way to tackle the question that our evolving relations with Cuba poses is in terms of hard and soft power—the very duality that proved so significant in protecting American interests during the Cold War. Hard power refers to the extent of a state’s ability to coerce others into acquiescing to its desired outcomes. There is no question about what determines hard power: military and economic capacity. Conversely, soft power refers to the extent a state can influence another’s behavior in support of its interests by means excluding the use of its military and economic might.[iii] The agents of soft power are less concrete, but in a basic sense can be associated with a national cultural: a state’s institutions and policies, political values, traditions and customs, and even literature, film, music. Many political scientists and historians argue that it was soft, more so than hard power, that wore down the USSR during the Cold War, especially after since the Soviet’s achieved strategic parity via their nuclear arsenal by 1960. Prohibited pop and rock music permeated the Berlin Wall’s definitive barrier separating the bipolar powers’ spheres, its tunes carrying the association of Western political ideologies along with catchy lyrics.

Cuba has suffered under an onslaught of American hard power for the past 54 years, in the name of our interest in seeing a more democratic government instilled. Economic ties remained severed and the embargo remains in place because the US refuses to reconcile the notion of trading with a state when that state does not uphold its responsibilities to its citizens; though there is more tumultuous history involved in the case of Cuba, this is the same simplified reason we do not trade with North Korea. Renewing relations is not indicative of a change in stance, or a newfound approval of the Castro dictatorship. It is just the result of realizing old tactics would not, half a century later, yield new results. Our interests have not changed. But now, we’re letting our soft power do the work.

The initial impact of the “fully restored diplomatic relations” means travel is permitted “for family visits, public performances, and professional, educational and religious activities,” banking ties will be increased to facilitate credit and debit card use on the island and allow Americans to import Cuban goods, including tobacco and alcohol—all examples of soft power flows.[iv]

More recently, on February 9th, Netflix announced it would offer its $7.99 per month streaming service to Cuba. And this past weekend, Conan O’Brien, TBS’s late night talk show host, took his crew to film in the Caribbean island’s capital for a March 4th show. Again, these events represent soft power through cultural engagement.

It is important to remember that although soft power is not the explicit power states derive from the robustness of their economies, wealthier nations are typically stronger in this capacity, just as they are in the direct terms of hard power. Money greatly impacts [v]the effectiveness of soft power as well. The US allocated portions of its budget for fostering culture and the arts during the Cold War, promoting abstract expressionist movements and even creating and funding the Congress for Cultural Freedom. The Soviet Union squashed and censored original thought. In the globalized age of the Internet and the information revolution, this is truer than ever. American trade relations introduce aspects of our cultural society to a region, while the presence of our culture abroad promotes trade.

So the ties between soft power and our interests are further reinforced. The adopted US stance is to promote democracy and human rights abroad, and protect our economic and security interests. Historically, evidence supports the correlation of all three aspects coexisting symbiotically: a more open government should likely enable greater human rights—or at least the inherent transparency should ensure appropriate responses in the case of violations—and the ties between capitalism and democracy are considerable. Thus the US might logically expect that by engaging in foreign markets, the introduction of its political values would follow in time. Enter the controversy over whether our humanitarian efforts are not doubly motivated. This debate over whether American interests in promoting democracy and intervening under the premise of human rights—hard and soft power working in tandem—are realistically driven by capitalistic interests will persist. The case of Cuba is no exception.

The problem is democracy cannot be forced on a nation. And though that is not as explicitly the case with soft power, the transition is more likely to occur, and occur effectively, if both take hold naturally. In the long term this, like all our foreign endeavors, ideally should facilitate mutual interests. Improved conditions in Cuba—as Castro noted, the US blockade has devastated the island’s economy and society—certainly constitute mutual interests, though the short-term implications are less clear.

Of course, such massive flows of manifested soft power into Cuba—like Netflix streaming services—serve our interests, especially short term economic ones. But by opening the doors to Cuba, we need to take care not to let our short-term interests (capitalist ventures with opportunities for profit in new markets) destroy any potential for our long term ones (sustained sociopolitical change) by creating discord with theirs. This was not a concern during the Cold War, when the two poles were matched in hard power capacity, but now there certainly is an extent to which too much soft power is counterproductive.

In the context of restored relations to a disparaged, isolated population, offering Cubans access to all ten seasons of Friends doesn’t seem like anything other than a gesture of goodwill, a digital olive branch. But the average monthly wage in Cuba is $17 a month, internet access is still widely unavailable at the levels we are accustomed to in the US, and international credit cards, rare in Cuba, are required to register. Thus only a select crop of Cuba’s most prominently and wealthy are currently eligible to enjoy Netflix.[vi] “Elitist” is probably not the perception the US wants to actively project to the nation it spent over half a century cutting off from the world. Additionally, the press release highlighted Netflix’s original series—House of Cards probably does not offer the best depiction of American politics either.

Even barring the hard power challenges of the past to the Castro regime, mass influxes of soft power as a result of restored relations can be uniquely debilitating if a balance is not established to allow for distinctly Cuban culture and distinctly Cuban accommodations of the presence of America and its culture as well. We cannot let “America”—our products and services and culture and presence—oversaturate their society without risking all both nations stand to gain.





[iii] Nye, Joseph. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004)





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