Guarini Institute Welcomes Renowned Reporter Ann Louise Bardach

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On March 30th, the Guarini Institute for Public Affairs had the pleasure of welcoming PEN-Award winning journalist Ann Louise Bardach to speak at the Aula Magna Regina at John Cabot University. Student government President Lynette Quezada, along with editor-in-chief of JCU’s student newspaper The Matthew, Lauren Cater, joined her as moderators. Ms. Bardach has been called “the go-to journalist on all things Cuban and Miami” by the Columbia Journalism Review and has written for almost every major media publication, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, Politico, The Atlantic, The Financial Times and Vanity Fair, where she was a reporter for ten years.

Ann Louise Bardach

From left to right: Ann Louise Bardach, Lynette Quezada and Lauren Cater

A momentous announcement. Ms. Bardach opened her speech by quoting from President Obama’s “momentous announcement” on December 17th 2014: “We cannot keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.” With these words, the current American President has put an end to “the half century-long Cold (and sometimes hot) War between the U.S. and its Caribbean island nemesis…”

Bardach offered one significant reason for the change in Cuba’s attitude towards the United States: the teetering relationship between Venezuela and Cuba. In light of the death of ally Hugo Chavez and his wobbly successor, Maduro, the Cubans fear losing their massive oil subsidy together with a variety of other Venezuelan financial perks.

Cuba was left either to find a new patron or join “the cursed, capitalist free market economy.” A second issue that has played a prominent role in defining the future of Cuba is the “tottering health” and “diminished capacity” of Fidel Castro, “Cuba’s Maximum Leader since 1959.” In February 2008, Castro turned power over to brother Raul whose Armed Forces, the FAR (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias), remain the central organ of the government.

US-Cuba relations. After narrating the Castro brothers’ authoritarian politics, Bardach offered a brief history of United States and Cuban relations, giving guests a glimpse into past diplomatic failures to eliminate the embargo and restore full diplomatic relations. She pointed out that Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s failed attempt in 1976 after Fidel sacrificed good relations with “El Imperio” by intervening in the Angolan Civil War. It became clear that Castro had an audacious and surprising military agenda. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter was repaid with dire electoral consequences for his efforts to restore quasi-diplomatic relations, as he was tasked with dealing with a huge mass of Cuban refugees in what became known as the Mariel refugee crisis. Bill Clinton was also keen to open to Cuba; but after the Cubans shot down four unarmed civilians, Congress enacted the Helms-Burton Act, which strengthened the US embargo against Cuba and diminished prospects of improved relations.

Fidel and Raul Castro have acted differently in political terms; this diversity, Bardach underlines, is nothing but the reflection of two very different personalities. When Raul leavened his communist view into a more moderate one, Fidel did not share his interest in reforms. Over the last 18 months, Raul has proven to be “a superb negotiator,” contributing to the improvement of the relationship with President Obama. The U.S. has recently allowed most Americans to travel to Cuba, however, some questions remain regarding Cuba’s stipulations on travel for the press and for Cuban exiles.

What next? The question and answer session raised interesting points regarding Ms. Bardach’s opinion on other uncertainties in future relations. She believes that the next step to amending relations will be removing Cuba from the state-sponsored terrorist list, as it clearly does not pose a global threat. Establishing an embassy will prove more difficult in her opinion, as it requires the Republican majority Congress to approve the President’s ambassador appointment. When asked about the cultural effects of a future influx of business corporations, she responded by saying she was wary that businesses would risk expanding to Cuba due to onerous restrictions. She sees the economic future characterized by more of a slow and progressive liberalism, rather than a drastic shift to a capitalist free-market economy.

Regarding the interesting transition of power from the elderly brothers, Bardach predicts that Raul’s son Alejandro will play an important role in the future, as will his sister Mariela, who is more focused on cultural issues. Though there are Castro family members throughout many ministries, Alejandro in particular has been favored and entrusted with a greater amount of power.

Ann Louise Bardach was able to offer guests an exclusive glimpse into the personal and political lives of the powerful Castro family. Her insights from her two interviews with Fidel and her extensive research and visits to the region made for a truly unique opportunity for those who attended the event. In summary, she makes one thing clear: “there will be no dramatic transition from Castroismo to an unfettered free market economy; but rather a painstakingly slow transformation through a myriad of small, measured reforms, just enough to ensure the survival of the island-nation and also its ruling family for as long as they choose.”