No American foreign policy drought lasted longer than the 55 years the United States spent clinging to its broken Cuban policy. American presidents came and went, but Fidel and Raoul Castro stayed put while the United States refused to restore diplomatic ties.
Last year, President Obama announced a new policy aimed at normalizing relations, and will travel to Cuba next week. But we can’t measure the new policy if the only yardstick we’re using was designed to measure the old one.
The old measurement began and ended with human rights and democracy — two issues fundamental to the United States. This nation will — and should — always stand up for democratic values, urging reform and modernization.
Listening to much of the discussion ahead of Obama’s trip, it seems we’re still measuring a new policy by an old yardstick. Senator Marco Rubio spoke for many on the right when he said that Obama’s trip would only be a success if the Castros announced the release of all political prisoners and an opening to democracy. Others have argued that simply flooding Cuba with American ideas and trade will change the island into a democracy.
We don’t apply magical thinking and exorbitant expectations to other relationships in the world. Vietnam, where 59,000 American lives were lost in the war, has become the most pro-American country in Southeast Asia and has moved toward market reforms in ways that might have Ho Chi Minh spinning in his tomb — but its human rights record and single-party system still disappoint. Yet no one argues we should return to the embargo era.
Measuring the entire US-Cuba relationship in terms of human rights and democracy will never be a roadmap to a mature relationship — and there’s a half century of hard evidence that tying every decision to absolute outcomes didn’t work.
But there has been progress since the shift in policy between the two nations.
On human rights, it’s still a work in progress. The United States doesn’t shy away from criticizing the way dissidents are harassed, detained, abused, and released — only to be rounded up again the next time they protest. But now the bilateral relationship includes a new formal channel to confront our differences — a human rights dialogue led by the US secretary of state and his Cuban counterpart. Obama will meet in Havana with Cuban dissidents, which roils the Castros but raises the profile of brave activists who want the same freedom and dignity Americans take for granted.
In addition, agreements have restored everything from commercial flights to mail service, and American companies like JetBlue are working to begin direct service from Boston to Havana. The United States has always believed that our best ambassadors are the American people themselves, so it’s a significant statistic that just last year American travel to Cuba jumped by 50 percent, and those numbers are expected to increase in 2016. It’s people-to-people diplomacy; nothing may epitomize its modern manifestation more than the way Airbnb has succeeded in connecting tourists with hosts on the island, building cultural connections and putting money into the pockets of average Cubans. The limited but growing Cuban private sector now includes one in every four Cubans. The two countries are exchanging scientists and doctors, and Cuban progress in health and medicine –vaccines, and treatments for everything from lung cancer to debilitating diabetes ulcers — may have enormous potential in saving American lives. The two countries are finally cooperating in protecting the shared resource of marine areas, and collaborating on efforts to protect the environment — good news in any country that worries about oil spills washing up on beaches.
With the right yard stick, the two nations can measure whether the new policy is working. Meanwhile, let’s take stock of what we’ve witnessed already: the American flag being cheered in Old Havana.