Obama: Change or Continuity?

Posted on January 23, 2009

The author of this commentary used to be the head of the
Jose Marti National Library here in Havana. For a time he
headed the Culture Department of the Central Committee of
the Cuban Communist Party. He’s written widely and been
widely published here in Cuba.

Obama: Change or continuity? (I)
By Eliades Acosta Matos
Progresso Weekly 1-22-09


First in a four-part series.

The people of the United States have voted for Barack Obama for
president and the establishment’s Olympus has approved, more because
of a selfish calculation than because of a democratic vocation. In a
way, the Rubicon has been crossed. A new era begins for that country
and the rest of the world, not better, but probably less bad.

There was no alternative. An eventual victory by John McCain would
have meant the continuity of Bushism, that insane neoconservative
suicide that has cost more than a million dead in Iraq alone, has left
the United States without allies or international prestige and has
promoted the worst financial crisis in modern times. Not surprisingly,
Joseph Stiglitz, 2001 Nobel laureate in economics, said that “the Wall
Street crisis is to market fundamentalism what the fall of the Berlin
Wall was to communism. It tells the world that this form of economic
organization is unsustainable.” (1)

It must be acknowledged that that conclusion was reached prior to
November by many gurus of the system, those invisible and accurate
personages who, from the shadows, pull the strings of their country’s
politics and of much of the world’s politics. They are the people who
determine how many pounds you must lose if you want to be a winner,
what books you must read, and what movies you must see during your
vacation. Used to heavy betting, to making predictions out loud, and
to always having a “Plan B,” they have once again played the cards of
continuity and change. That’s what Barack Obama means as the new
President of the United States: an expected and orderly retrenchment,
so that there will be no panic during the sinking.

During the Middle Ages, Christian exegetes used to say that the ways
of the Lord are infinite. Something similar could be said today by the
political strategists who designed the Obama Play, which, as you could
assume, cannot be improvised or left to chance in U.S. politics.
Shrewdly, a young and little-known man, from humble origins, black,
and fathered by a Third-World citizen has been promoted as the Messiah
of the system. Thus is re-edited the story of Christ, the Saviour,
predestined to bring to mankind the Good News of redemption, a man who
came to the world into the family of a pariah. But, unlike what the
New Testament says, let us not hope for any spectacular miracle here.

Latin America, a continent immersed in a transcendental process of
change, constitutes a challenge for the new president of the United
States. The most elemental logic indicates that the man who turned the
word “change” into his political campaign slogan should show special
sensitivity and sympathy for peoples who have began to move precisely
because of the urgent need for change. “I believe that the United
States continues to be the best hope for the rest of the world and
that whoever is elected must assume that role and carry it forward,”
declared the President-elect on April 23, 2007 (2). But in the
collective imagination and the historical memory of Latin Americans,
the previous governments of that country which dreams of becoming an
archetype to imitate are the same who intervened repeatedly in the
region with their military forces, who have subverted and overthrown
democratic governments elected by their people, who have installed and
protected bloodthirsty dictators who caused thousands to die or
disappear and who, through pitiless plunder, have obstructed the
development of nations.

In his “Statement About Latin America,” read to the Senate on March 8,
2007, the then-Senator from Illinois acknowledged that successive U.S.
governments had neglected relations with their hemispheric neighbors
and that this would be one of the priorities of his administration, if
he reached the White House. “To help the people to
emerge from poverty is part of our interests and values,” he said.
“When our neighbors suffer, we all suffer. <…> Our commitments must
be expressed with actions, not with words. <…> We must maintain our
support for democracy, social justice and opportunities for our
neighbors to the south. The Western hemisphere is too important to our
principles and economic and security interests to threaten it with
negligent and ill applied policies.” (3)

But these beautiful and hopeful promises from the newly elected
president (which, to be taken seriously, must become concrete actions
beginning on Jan. 20, 2009) contrast with some of his statements
toward the Cuban Revolution and the Bolivarian Revolution in
Venezuela. At that point, the kindly rhetoric of change falters and
once again the old days of pressure, warnings and scoldings surface.
In the first instance, while he has acknowledged the need to lift the
existing restrictions so Cuban-Americans may visit the island and send
unlimited remittances to their relatives, he has also said that he
will apply a “strong, intelligent and principled diplomacy to bring
real change to Cuba” (4), advocating the retention of a blockade “that
provides advantages at the time of negotiation” (5). Never mind that
this measure has failed or that it causes pain and suffering to the
people on the island, or has been rejected year after year by the
United Nations General Assembly because of its illegal and immoral
nature. In the case of Venezuela, he has said that Chávez “is not the
kind of neighbor we want” (6) when, strictly speaking, that is
something that has been repeatedly decided at the polls by the
Venezuelan people, whose decision it is.

These little sparks, amid the sigh of global relief that greeted the
results of the Nov. 4 election, cast doubt on whether the new
administration will really bring back to the White House — profoundly
and truly — the sanity that was lost, and if the nation can resume
the path from which it deviated for so long.

The key to the problem is to define what Barack Obama understands as
“changes” and to what extent he is willing to carry them. We also need
to know how far he can (and will be allowed to) go to make them. To
answer these questions, we’ll have to delve deep into the strategic
ideas that move around him and the philosophy that lies behind his
bright political career. And that leads us not to the squares and
streets filled with fervent supporters of “change” or to the heated
speeches with which this fine orator won the hearts of his compatriots
and much of the world but to certain offices and cabinets where the
script for this strange U.S. perestroika was drafted in silence some
time ago.

When Barack Obama talks about an “intelligent policy” — and his
brand-new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeats it before the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee as if it were a mantra — we are
looking not at a rhetorical playing card but something a lot more
essential, whose analysis could throw some light on the extent and
depth of the “change” Obama claims to incarnate. Because behind Obama
is the “theory of soft and smart power” promoted by a Washington think
tank, the CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies), just
as behind Bush were the neoconservative concepts of the Project for a
New American Century.

What differentiated Obama from McCain and earned him the support of
the American voters was that he presented himself with a kindly face
and a human discourse that contrasted strongly with the permanently
knit brows of his opponent and his apocalyptical preference for war,
military expenditure and iron-fisted policies.

“If I become the visible face of U.S. foreign policy and power, I
shall make the strategic decisions with prudence, will handle the
crises, emergencies and opportunities in the world in a sober and
intelligent manner” promised presidential candidate Barack Obama. (7)

Obama embodies the clever empowerment of the universal hope of a world
tired of death, hunger, epidemics and tragedies. That does not mean
that he questions the hegemonic — and, why not say it, imperialist —
role in which his country projects itself. It means that, in the best
tradition of the CSIS, he bets on soft, diplomatic methods that
generate consensus and voluntary obedience, that allow the
now-exhausted system of global domination to take a breather, avoiding
whenever possible the always costly and unpopular wars.

Obama now embodies the suave ways with which the world’s capitalist
system counterattacks, attempting to emerge from the crisis and to
regain so much lost ground. He embodies those delicate yet strong
strategies (always preferable to the preventive attacks of the
neoconservatives) with which capitalism attempts to achieve the same
but without so much fuss. As it was always done in the good old days.

And I don’t know why, while re-reading his speeches, I’ve begun to
re-read the novel “El Gatopardo,” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa,
that says that “if we want everything to remain as is, it is necessary
for everything to change.”

By the way, did someone speak of changes?

Elíades Acosta Matos is a Cuban writer and essayist. He has written
numerous essays and books, among them “Apocalypse According to St.
George,” and “From Valencia to Baghdad.” His latest book,
“21st-Century Imperialism: The Cultural Wars” will be presented at the
2009 Havana Book Fair. Acosta was chief of the Cultural Department of
the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba.


<1> Joseph Stiglitz interviewed by Nathan Gardels, El País, Sept. 21,

<2> “Senator Obama’s statements about Latin America,” March 8, 2007
(www.obama.senate.gov )

<3> “Obama’s policy for Cuba and Latin America,” Político, May 23, 2008.

<4> Idem.

<5> “Obama: Chávez is a manageable threat,” Reuters news agency, June
11, 2008.

<6> James Traub: “Is (His) Biography (Our) Fate?” The New York Times
Magazine, Nov. 4, 2007.

Posted in: Cuba, Venezuela