More than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Fidel Castro remains in charge in Havana, despising capitalism, taunting the Cuban-American community in Miami, theorizing about the evils of globalization, and keeping up with every imaginable statistic about Cuba. He has been in power for 41 years, outlasting U.S. strategies from the Bay of Pigs in the early 1960s to the tightened economic sanctions of the 1990s.
As Castro remains in control, new conditions have led to a reexamination of U.S. policy. Cuba’s threat to hemispheric security ended when the Soviet Union dissolved, Soviet military support disappeared, and Cuban support for revolutionary movements in Latin America ended. As American sanctions have increased, Cuban dissidents and religious authorities have increasingly voiced their opposition to the embargo and to policies that seek to isolate Cuba. Economic reforms in Cuba are still incipient, but small enterprise, foreign investment, incentive-based agriculture, and other changes have had important impacts: they helped the economy survive its post-Soviet crisis, and Cubans working in those sectors have gained experience with markets and augmented their earnings.
Cuban Americans have increasingly joined this discussion, as a younger generation of exiles values contact with the island and some first-generation exiles begin to question the effectiveness of the trade embargo. The Elián González crisis fueled doubts about the embargo when the young boy’s plight captured American attention and weakened the pro-embargo hard-line position in public and congressional opinion.
The wide array of U.S. sanctions has failed to promote change in Cuba and has allowed Castro to reinforce his arguments that the United States promotes economic deprivation in Cuba and seeks to abridge Cuban sovereignty. It is time for the United States to turn to economic engagement. Whether or not the embargo is lifted completely, a policy that respects the rights of Americans to trade with, invest in, and travel to Cuba would more effectively serve U.S. interests in post-Soviet Cuba: defending human rights, helping the Cuban people, and connecting with the generation of Cubans that will govern that country in the early 21st century.