Obama: Shaking a Raul, shaking a Castro


FLASHBACK . . . US President Barack Obama (right) shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas at the ATLAPA Convention Centre on April 11, this year in Panama City. – AFP

The Other Side with Nathaniel Manheru
This column has adopted a very critical stance against the American governments, past, present, and I dare say future. It may sound absurd that the column dares condemn future governments of America, condemn them before their time, before they come.

Well, not quite absurd. Nothing is more fixed, more constant, more dogged and predictable than the American establishment. And American administrations take mores from the establishment, itself a trite point to make. The column has been especially critical of the Obama administration, and of Obama himself as a leader: the first ever black president which history has ever produced for colour-full America.

On his ascension, there was great hope, great expectations from and for all men of colour, expectations across continents, starting with black people in America itself. Here was one of them, making it to the White House against seemingly insuperable odds. Surely the black moment had come, we all thought, a moment for a new script for history, a moment for a new colour in power politics.

Our Obama would not enter White House; rather, he would enter whiteness by painting White House all black, red, yellow, white, green, down to its working rules and philosophy. The new era of multiracialism, multiculturalism was now come, hurray! And come not as a favour to men and women of colour, but come as a just and deserved recognition that America, right from its origins, has always been the land of immigrants, of comers, of conquerors, of the conquered and of abductees.

Surely such a variegated history, such a medley, after a long simmer, could never settle and resolve as just one colour? Such was the great expectation around Obama’s incumbency.

Weep more, wail more

But the horror, the horror! Jails swelled black and Hispanic.

Unemployment consolidated its black hue. More black Americans were cut and mowed down by white gunfire, all under Obama’s curatorship of the state, than under say Bush the warmonger. Bush would go abroad to appease the white demonic craving for blood. But he would not kill at home. America, too, became more fundamentalist, more intolerant, more racial, under Obama’s presidency than under any American president in the last and later half of the 20th century, certainly in the 21st century.

And we all asked: had they put one of us near or on the trigger so they shoot black better, shoot it with free conscience?

From whom so much was expected, so little was promised, let alone delivered to men and women of colour who continued to chafe, to weep and wail under tongs.

Obama at his best?

My fellow columnist and professorial elder who writes from America, one Ken Mufuka, on Thursday screamed “Obama at his best”. The occasion was the commemoration of the nine blacks mowed down by one Dylann Roof, a 21-year old Rhodesian acolyte. Significantly, mowed down at an historic chapel of Charleston.

Obama joined the stricken black community, and staged an impressive spectacle to a society so used to viewing power and deservedness in performative terms. I am sure that is what may have impressed Ken, my professorial elder. But does a sitting American president have to behave and act like a civil rights leader, act like a Martin Luther King (Jnr) in the sixties? Act so effetely in the face of an outrage and tragedy which tags and pulls his own navel, albeit vicariously?

And to lead impotent, grief-stricken blacks in singing “Amazing Grace”? A whole US president? Why do we look, seem and act so helpless long after we have produced and put a president in the White House? The tragedy of Charleston leaves me less enamoured of Obama, in fact quite cynical of his presidency, than my more profound, older professorial brother Ken. I have to look elsewhere for good enough reason to sing praises to Obama.

The country which does not need presidents

On July 1, Obama gave me reason to write differently, reverently, on his expiring presidency. He announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, relations severed in 1961! I needed another year to come into this world. Sanctions upheld by successive US administrations until now. How many lives, generations, have had to survive under the shadow of these sanctions? How many American presidents have come and gone without doing anything about the same sanctions?

It leaves one with a sense that America does not need or have presidents, only presidential effigies! The cue for governance and any changes to governance is generated elsewhere, generated by forces larger, beyond and wielding a tenure that outlasts that nation’s presidency. Which would seem to suggest that any tributes to Obama on this, or on any other positive developments rarely done by America, are misplaced? Well, not quite.

Oratorical presidency

The essence of American presidency is great oratory, which is probably why the waspish Lord Carrington (remember Lancaster House Conference of 1979?), when asked about his impressions of Obama, cynically quoted his (Lord Carrington) American friend as saying – and I paraphrase:

Obama sees a problem, composes and delivers a great speech on it, and then goes back home to sleep soundly, convinced and satisfied that he has solved the problem.

At the end of which the reminiscent Lord concluded: “I agree”! American leaders have never been eligible or electable on account of their policies, their personalities; rather, they have been made electable by considerations of style and charm, which is why soundbites matter so much in American politics.

It’s broken for 50 years

And therein lies the value of my rare tribute to Obama’s effete presidency. On July 1, he was able to deliver a piece of rhetoric which threw vital light on American ways, indeed which allowed great possibilities in critiquing the American establishment, while drawing from its own pronouncements. For me that is as much service a sitting American president can ever render to humanity.

Wondering why it took so long for hostile policies against Cuba to be revised and rescinded, Obama so eloquently said: “After all, our nations are separated by only 90 miles, and there are deep bonds of family and friendship between our people. But there have been very real, profound differences between our governments, and sometimes we allow ourselves to be trapped by a certain way of doing things.” He added: “For the United States, that meant clinging to a policy that was not working.

“Instead of supporting democracy and opportunity for the Cuban people, our efforts to isolate Cuba despite good intentions increasingly had the opposite effect – cementing the status quo and isolating the United States from our neighbours in this hemisphere. The progress that we mark today is yet another demonstration that we don’t have to be imprisoned by the past. When something isn’t working, we can – and will – change.”

Fix it now

And he did not have kind words for neo-conservatives in Congress: “And that’s what this is about: a choice between the future and the past.

“Americans and Cubans alike are ready to move forward. I believe it’s time for Congress to do the same. I’ve called on Congress to take steps to lift the embargo that prevents Americans from travelling or doing business in Cuba. We’ve already seen members from both parties begin that work. After all, why should Washington stand in the way of our own people? Yes, there are those who want to turn back the clock and double down on a policy of isolation. But it’s long past time for us to realise that this approach doesn’t work. It hasn’t worked for 50 years. It shuts America out of Cuba’s future, and it only makes life worse for the Cuban people.”

Restating America’s moral imperialism

But this seemingly radical, iconoclastic temperament is tempered by a placatory show of commitment to America’s long-term strategic goals as defined by the unchanging establishment. Kerry, Obama discloses, “will travel to Havana formally to proudly raise the American flag over our embassy once more”. The rapproachment does not blunt America’s commitment to its core values and objectives: “And I’ve been clear that we will also continue to have some serious differences. That will include America’s enduring support for universal values, like freedom of speech and assembly, and the ability to access information. And we will not hesitate to speak out when we see actions that contradict those values.”

Underlining new tact in the relations, Obama added:

“However, I strongly believe that the best way for America to support our values is through engagement. That’s why we’ve already taken steps to allow for greater travel, people-to-people and commercial ties between the United States and Cuba. And we will continue to do so going forward.” After the limping Kerry has raised the flag, a lot more than symbolism is expected, says Obama: “With this change, we will be able to substantially increase our contacts with the Cuban people. We’ll have more personnel at our embassy. And our diplomats will have the ability to engage more broadly across the island. That will include the Cuban government, civil society and ordinary Cubans who are reaching for a better life.”

A clear strain of continuity in the underlying policy base! A clear shift from hard power, armour diplomacy to soft power, to using free speech and free assembly to challenge the same status quo as before.

Shaking Raul, shaking a Castro

There is not an iota of doubt that Obama is a true scion of America’s global imperialism, one devout and percipient enough to know that imperialism gets revalorised through periodic changes and adjustments to its tactical stances, its ways, but without touching firmament, its informing core values and objectives. I am sure the Cubans see through this tactic, and will be able to formulate a counter-tactic which also preys on the window which the Obama tactic opens up for them, while defending and preserving their core values and relentlessly pursuing their interests.

That is the game in town and Cubans look competent and skilled enough to play it. But as they play the Americans, they throw up key lessons in leadership. Here is one state which has defined its direction, its values and goals. One state where a change of leadership does not amount to a change of course, only tactic, with the loadstar goal of socialism remaining intact, fortified even. When Obama shakes hands with Raul, he is soon to notice he is shaking the hand of a Castro, of a Cuban, of a sovereign Cuba which will not trammel its values for Yankee goodwill or friendship.

A Castro, a Cuban, a Cuba which will not be told to leave its gods for another, which will not be ordered not to allow mosques, synagogues or pagoda by a foreign power. It is a Cuba that has suffered immensely, for a long time. But a Cuba that won’t leave its revolution, that won’t ease pain, buy peace at any price.

So far, yet so near

It has been 14 years since America slapped Zimbabwe with sanctions, slapped the sanctions with hideous cynicism thinly clothed as democracy and economic recovery. Very soon, these sanctions will assume an age close to half the age of American sanctions against Cuba. True, we are not 90 miles away from the US. But as Christopher Smith, a US Senator, recently noted in a congressional subcommittee hearing, our mineral resources not only give us an “outsized” importance; they also collapse distance between us.

To quote him again: “It was the abundance of such mineral resources, and their exploitation which has driven the relationship between the West and Zimbabwe.” America had a significant interest in our affairs, but not for democracy, respect for property rights and economic prosperity, as is claimed by its minions here, all in a tired chorus. America challenges the country’s founding revolution, challenges the status quo which it says poses “an unusual, continuing threat” to her interests and foreign policy goals. Not even Russia has merited such wording.

Isolation on the continent

Much more, America smells an interregnum, and strives hard to own the aftermath of that interregnum. It smells an interregnum and seeks to ride it given that its decadal policy of changing regime and the status quo has failed. On that score we join the Cubans in congratulating ourselves, while deferring to the Cubans for holding out for much longer, more successfully.

While steadfast Cuba has stamped its will on the American establishment, Zimbabwe has not yet, although the situation of Zimbabwe-US relations is evolving in ways virtually comparable. There is no evidence that America will succeed to oust Zanu-PF. Quite the opposite, it is its tools here which have been outed and ousted. There is enough evidence to show that its citizens want to link up: people-to-people and by way of businesses, with us.

Very soon it shall ask itself why it has to stand in the way of its people. There is overwhelming evidence that Africa’s support for Zimbabwe is renewed and strengthened, creating a hemispheric challenge for America whose influence on Zimbabwe and in Africa is diminishing by the day. America is slowly facing isolation and replacement by other powers of goodwill.

Tomoson, come in here!

And lately, we have seen a flurry of deputations to this country, accompanied by a rhetoric underlining policy futility and counselling a change of course for America in relation to Zimbabwe. Not that Zimbabwe’s July 1 moment is come, but that Obama’s statement on Cuba suffices to justify a change of course on Zimbabwe, more so that this is his final term. As a Zimbabwean, I feel better armed – by Obama – to savage American policy on Zimbabwe, indeed to show its moral bankruptcy.

But quite frankly, what I dread is not America’s much vaunted might; rather it is my own doubts about Zimbabwe’s leading generation’s capacity to grasp the import of American strategy on Zimbabwe when she says: “Once the resentments of the current old guard have passed and democratic governance can be established, US-Zimbabwe relations can become what they have never been, harmonious and mutually beneficial.”

The Cubans completely grasped the import of America rhetoric, appraised it it fully in order to fortify their own defences, to strengthen their convictions and to reinforce belief in their worldview. The result was a Fidel who bowed out to a Raul, but without a revolutionary Cuba making way to Samoza’s Cuba.

Pain or unprincipled anxieties for peace and settlement can defeat countries who are on the verge of victory. A misapprehension of leadership and a mishandled change of guard can easily be an excuse for treachery, for a betrayal of people’s rights and gains. Indeed, it can be the moment to follow the example of Lobengula’s Lotjie, and say: “Tomoson, come in here. The King wishes to speak to you alone.”

A moment of intimate betrayal. And the outcome of such renegade settlements is always the same, clear: treasures are mortagaged to foreign treasuries, Mwenemutapa style. Before long, sovereignty vanishes. Icho!

  • nathaniel.manheru@zimpapers.co.zw

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