Cuba exists in a state of suspended animation, poised for a future it can’t yet grasp. The population is better educated than in other Caribbean nations, but to no visible end. Families are relatively healthy, protected by a medical system that sometimes wins praise from the American left, but there are not nearly enough jobs for all the hale and hearty workers.
Havana retains the time-warp look and feel of the 1950s, in its cars and architecture, and this seems like a deliberate statement: No country, even one whose economy is as idle as Cuba’s, can resist all change without wanting to. Indeed, the most visible economic energy in Havana is spent on restoring buildings to their Art Deco shine and repainting ancient Studebakers. Fifty-five years later, Fidel and Raul Castro are still fighting the revolution as though it were 1959, relishing in having eight poor families camped out in decaying mansions built for foreign oligarchs, while shunning the consumer goods that separate rich from poor in capitalist economies.
The fact that at least some Havanans are reasonably adjusted to their circumstances is, perhaps, a sign of the Castros’ endurance: They’ve stuck with their system long enough to show that countries can advance by measures other than GDP. But they couldn’t get away with maintaining a police state, while justifying basic deprivations like lack of Internet service, without the help of their neighbor to the north. The US trade embargo is the Castros’ best weapon by far, the excuse they feed to their own people for the lack of economic opportunities. It gives the Cuban regime the one thing it can’t produce on its own: a reason to continue the revolution.
It’s long past time for Congress to ease the trade embargo, but President Obama needs to lead the way with a reassessment of US policy toward Cuba, explaining to both US and Cuban audiences why better relations would be mutually beneficial.
Fidel Castro is 88, and Raul is almost 83. They’ve outlasted their enemies and seem a sure bet to maintain power until they relinquish it voluntarily or die. Cubans understand the actuarial reality and hold Fidel, Raul, and the rest of the “revolutionary generation” in the type of regard usually reserved for those who’ve passed from the scene: They’re willing to forgive the present and color the past in rosy hues in anticipation of a better future. They are concerned about the outlines of that future. The United States, hovering less than 100 miles away, should be, too.
The embargo is a Cold War relic that remains unchanged because of politics — domestic US politics. In Florida, the important “swing state” in presidential elections, some Cuban exiles cling to the embargo as revenge against the Castro brothers. It’s a largely personal, single-issue mindset that can’t, and shouldn’t, be disrespected because it grew out of personal experience. Many of these older Cuban-Americans lost land and money in the Castro revolution, while seeing their families torn apart.
But just as Fidel and Raul Castro are exiting the scene, so too are these unyielding foes. President Obama, who was perceived to be less resolute in his support of the trade embargo than Mitt Romney, split the Cuban-American vote almost evenly in the last election, while carrying Florida. Overall, Floridians supported greater engagement with Cuba by a whopping margin in a recent poll. Florida’s former Republican governor Charlie Crist, now running for his old job as a Democrat, has called for lifting the embargo — a stance that was once anathema in Florida — and is leading in some polls. Even more significantly, the Cuban American sugar baron Alfonso “Alfy” Fanjul, a leading contributor to anti-Castro groups, recently announced his willingness to do business with the Cuban government.
Fanjul was swiftly condemned by some leading Cuban-American politicians. They support the embargo as an expression of America’s rejection of communism and support for human rights. But those aren’t the reasons it was originally imposed. The embargo grew out of a Cold War containment strategy that punished countries with close relations to the Soviet Union. And then and now, the United States maintained economic ties to regimes that are as repressive as Cuba’s. Communist China is the United States’ second-largest trading partner. Communist Vietnam is currently negotiating favored trade status as a member of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Is the Castro regime really worse than the pre-revolutionary Assad dictatorship in Syria? Egypt’s military rulers? Venezuelan leftists? All those regimes at one point enjoyed, or still enjoy, closer economic relations with the United States than Cuba does, despite having far fewer geographical or cultural links.
There’s a reason why the United States doesn’t normally cut all ties to countries with repressive regimes. Economic engagement can be as powerful, or more powerful, a force for change than isolation. It doesn’t erase tensions with offending regimes, but rather puts more pressure on them. It expresses to the people living under the regime a desire for cooperation; opportunities to better understand each other; and a closer look at American-style freedoms and democracy.
Some supporters of the Cuban embargo seem to believe that it can bring about enough deprivations to motivate the people to rise up against the Castros. If so, it’s failed to have that effect for five decades, while enabling the regime to pin all the blame for the country’s hardships on US policy. Conversely, there’s little reason to believe that easing the embargo will create enough of a boom to convince citizens that communism is working.
Tourism would increase steadily, but Cuba isn’t now in much of a position to handle such an influx. Business investments of the type that Alfy Fanjul is envisioning would have to win the approval of the Cuban government, and be conducted on its terms. If anything, greater business ties with the United States would force the Cuban government to defend its economic decisions to its people — who may well decide that more capitalist investment is in order. Either way, it would create meaningful, positive ties that would be in place when Raul Castro ceases to be president.
Raul has said that he will not run for another term in 2018, and has designated a much younger bureaucrat, 54-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel, as his successor. But it’s an open question whether Diaz-Canel, who lacks the credibility of the revolutionary generation, will be able to hold the country together. The communist regime could be overthrown by a familiar Latin American-style coup. Or the country could move in a democratic direction.
Much could depend on the Cuban people’s view of the United States. Obama’s decision to loosen the travel ban on American citizens with relatives in Cuba has ushered in a wave of positive feelings. Cubans proudly wear American baseball caps and boast about their relatives in Florida and New Jersey. But they are also aware that the United States doesn’t have clean hands in Cuba. Under the thuggish reign of US-backed Fulgencio Batista, American sugar plantations exploited laborers and stoked racial anger through segregation; the US mafia, having been dislodged from American cities by the crusading Kefauver committee, took over much of Havana, operating gambling rackets, drug rings, and prostitution.
But that was more than half a century ago, and Cuba’s communist government, which represses virtually all forms of free speech and political expression, at times through the use of lethal power, has driven the country to an economic standstill. Once, Cuba got what it needed — and more — from the Soviet Union. But over the last 25 years it has gradually found new trading partners. Nature abhors a vacuum. And while America stands by, it’s not farfetched to believe that China and perhaps even a newly bellicose Russia will step in to supply many of the products that the United States does not.
The normalization of relations with Cuba can’t happen with a single brushstroke or act of Congress; it’s a process that needs to develop naturally, organically. But it should begin now. There’s a lot of history to live down, a lot of resentments to overcome. Unfortunately, the two countries are mired in a diplomatic tit-for-tat in which Cuba is holding a contractor for the US Agency for International Development, Alan Gross, on charges that he provided satellite phones and digital equipment to dissidents, in a move widely seen as retaliation for the United States holding three alleged Cuban spies.
The US government insists Gross isn’t a spy, but lost a bit of the high ground when it was revealed last month that USAID was operating a phony Twitter-like service designed to identify and empower internal critics of the Castro regime. All this spy-vs.-spy maneuvering has very little relevance to the lives of most Americans and Cubans. It’s a puppet theater in which both sides winkingly play their parts. But after 55 years, the falseness of this dialogue, and its inapplicability to modern circumstances, should be apparent to all. Real people are suffering. Latin American neighbors are looking on with distrust and distaste. Opportunities abound for better conditions all around.
If the United States wants a Cuban government that reflects its own people’s evident fascination and even affection for the United States, the Obama administration should start paving the way now.