Normalize Relations with Cuba

The Obama administration hasn’t had much foreign policy luck with the big issues.  But President Barack Obama is making progress with Cuba.

The spy/prisoner exchange offered obvious humanitarian benefits.  The more significant step announced by the president was to drop what he called today’s “outdated approach” to U.S.-Cuba relations.  His objective is to expand travel and trade with Cuba and reopen the U.S. embassy in Havana.

Of course, the administration’s plan has generated complaints from hard-line Cuban-Americans and Republican uber-hawks.  Representing both camps, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio denounced the policy as “absurd” and another example of “coddling dictators and tyrants.”

Rubio substituted rhetoric for argument.  He apparently realized he couldn’t make a practical case for maintaining sanctions, especially that they would ever achieve their purported end. 

A half century ago the Castros created a nasty dictatorship and allied with the Soviet Union.  But the Soviet Union, Cold War, Soviet-Cuban alliance, and Moscow subsidies for Cuba are all gone.  Only the Castro dictatorship lives on, despite the embargo.

Over the years the rest of the world ignored Washington’s ban.  Even after the cut-off of Soviet transfers the sanctions did not bring Havana to heel.

The administration’s plan is to begin discussions over reestablishing an embassy. Regulations would be changed to encourage more travel and remittances, particularly by Cuban-Americans.  The administration also intends to expand allowable exports to Cuba, including agriculture and construction.  The administration will review the designation of Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism. 

Normalization is long overdue.  There’s no longer a security argument for isolating Cuba.  At home the Castros are thugs, but that’s old news and hasn’t been affected by a half century of sanctions.  What we know as a result of essentially a controlled experiment with the embargo is that sanctions do not release political prisoners, generate competitive elections, unseat dictators, create a free press, or foster a market economy. 

Thirty years into the embargo supporters thought their moment finally had arrived with the collapse of the U.S.S.R.  In 1994 the Heritage Foundation’s John Sweeney declared that the Castro regime’s collapse is “more likely in the near term than ever before.”

Another two decades have gone by and all Washington’s policy of isolation has done is given the Castros an excuse for their failure. When I visited Cuba (legally) a decade ago I met Elizardo Sanchez Santa Cruz, who spent years in Castro’s prisons.  He criticized U.S. sanctions for giving “the government a good alibi to justify the failure of the totalitarian model in Cuba.”

Nor does isolation make a symbolic statement.  There have been and remain plenty of worse regimes in the world. 

Moreover, U.S. policy essentially made Fidel Castro.  Had Washington dismissed his regime, he would have receded in global importance, just another windbag dictator in charge of a poor, small state.  Instead, for decades he was seen as the premier global opponent of Yanqui Imperialism.

Of course, it’s important not to overstate the benefits of normalization.  Cubans are limited in what they can buy and also in what they can produce to sell. 

Moreover, while greater economic and political contact will be naturally seditious and undermine Communist Party rule, the regime has carefully controlled past foreign investment.  Much more will still need to be done to encourage a freer society.

President Obama will face strong opposition, but even most Republicans today recognize that the embargo has failed.

As I wrote in National Interest:  “The Cuban people deserve far better than what the Castros have delivered.  Ultimately, their Communist dictatorship will end up in history’s legendary dustbin.  But not yet, unfortunately.”

Normalizing both economic and diplomatic relations with Havana should be seen not as a victory for the Castro government, but for the people of Cuba.  Liberty will come to that land.  The only question is when.  Expanding relations should help speed the process.