WASHINGTON – President Obama’s unexpected announcement about re-establishing formal diplomatic relations with Cuba, while easing some of the travel and economic restrictions that prevent US companies from doing business with the island, is welcome news. For 55 years the American policy towards Cuba has been based on the effort to isolate this communist country.
By any measure, this has been is a gigantic failure. 55 years of trade and economic embargo and no diplomatic relations with Cuba did not produce the intended results of suffocating and then killing the communist dictatorship. The Cuban Communist Party still rules the 11 million people who live on the island. The (now considerably aged) Castro brothers are still in charge. The rest of the world never followed the American example and deals with Cuba.
It is time to recognize reality and stop allowing the sizable but not omnipotent community of Cuban refugees (who live mostly in southern Florida) to dictate American policy towards the Caribbean nation. The (supposedly) morally righteous principle whereby America should not have diplomatic relations with a country whose government engages in repression and human rights violations makes no sense.
Think of it. If we applied this principle of “we only deal with good, democratic governments” to all our foreign relations, then we should have no embassies in China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Venezuela, Russia, Zimbabwe, and many other countries.
This is no endorsement
Having diplomatic relations is simply an internationally recognized modality for conducting state to state business. Having or opening an embassy in any country is not a “political endorsement”.
Diplomatic relations are not and should not be construed as the equivalent of an American official approval of the system of government in place, in Cuba or anywhere else, for that matter. These days Washington openly condemns Russia’s heavy-handed meddling in Ukraine. The US Government has enacted and enforced economic sanctions against Russia. And yet we still have a US Embassy in Moscow.
That said, let’s see how all this will play out. Of course, some segments of the Cuban-American community loudly complained, claiming that this move just announced by President Obama is a betrayal, while it amounts to a “reward” for the Castro brothers. They argue that America should have demanded and obtained political reforms in Cuba before accepting “normal” relations with this dictatorship.
On the face of it, this is a silly argument. As already indicated, if this “political litmus test” principle applied globally, we should close down many embassies.
Change through trade?
What is not clear is whether this diplomatic and trade opening to Cuba may indeed help trigger real changes within a reasonable period of time. On the face of it, the impact of America’s gigantic economic power should be able to transform a relatively small country.
That said, do keep in mind that a full US economic and trade engagement would require additional and much more complex policy shifts. President Obama does not have the power to formally end the Cuba embargo. This would require new legislation that may or may not come soon, given the new Republican majority in the US Congress. In the meantime, Obama can only ease some of the restrictions, including travel, remittances and sale of certain goods, including construction material and telecom equipment.
Be that as it may, if we could picture a peaceful “invasion” of tens of thousands of America tourists streaming into Cuba, year after year, plus assorted business people looking for deals, it stands to reason that this phenomenon would influence the country. Most Cubans have never traveled. Only 5% of the population has (restricted) access to the internet. Cuba is relatively isolated. Two generations grew up under the Castro regime. Millions of Cubans have no idea about the rest of the world. Coming into close contact with people who live in a free society overtime will cause some new thinking.
And then there are the opportunities and channels of communication that may be created by new business relations with American companies. Again, for the moment, much of this is speculation.
Assuming the end of the embargo, will American companies seize this opportunity? Or will they conclude that Cuba is way too poor and backward, and therefore not a viable market? As some experts argue, in the Cuban economy the only thing that works is the black market.
Does Cuba gain anything?
That said, what is Cuba’s interest in getting closer to America, given the political risks that closer “people to people” connections may end up creating?
Well, realistically, Cuba does not have that many options. It used to depend on the old Soviet Union. But that patron is gone. Post-Soviet Russia is not doing well these days. Venezuela, Cuba’s main political ally in the region and provider of oil at discounted prices, is a basket case, because of the economic ruin created by Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro.
America can help Cuba economically. Of course, Raul Castro knows that close relations with a gigantic free market economy may change the political climate in Cuba. But Raul Castro is old. He is not going to see the long-term effects of this policy shift.
Keep things as they are?
And the idea that the new generation of Cuban Communist Party leaders is determined to keep the island under the same old repressive regime, as dreadfully inefficient as it is, come what may, is almost absurd.
North Korea, with China’s indirect support, may be able to keep the old game going for a while longer. But the Cuban regime does not have the same staying power. In the long run, the American embrace may prove deadly for the regime. But it is likely to benefit the Cuban people.