President-elect Donald Trump is facing his first international challenge, the death of former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro. Unfortunately, Trump looks set to flunk the test.
Anyone who believes in human liberty should welcome Castro's passing. Whatever the alleged social progress of his communist regime—in fact, it left the Cuban people mired in poverty—cannot justify a half century of repression. There's no excuse for imprisoning and executing political opponents, despite the hagiographic nonsense spouted by some of Castro's admirers.
When Castro's forces ousted the corrupt and brutal Fulgencio Batista, many Americans admired the young, energetic, and English-speaking revolutionary. But Castro showed his true beliefs when he embraced the Soviet Union. Washington feared that the island, barely 90 miles from U.S. territory, would become a Soviet base, as it did during the Cuban Missile Crisis. American officials also worried that Cuba would attempt to spread communism throughout a region filled with decrepit, corrupt, impoverished—and thus vulnerable—regimes.
The U.S. backed a military invasion, which failed spectacularly, and a series of sometimes comical assassination attempts, which failed embarrassingly. This left economic war. The Eisenhower administration cut Cuban sugar imports in July 1960. Later presidents and Congresses successively limited U.S. exports and investments and other Cuban imports, froze Cuban assets in America, restricted travel, downgraded diplomatic relations, and pressed other nations to follow suit.
Failure never fazed sanctions advocates. Congress voted to prohibit American subsidiaries from doing business in Cuba in 1992; four years later Congress targeted foreign firms doing business on the island and even barred company executives from traveling to America. These steps achieved nothing other than satisfy a desperate desire to do something.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, ending subsidies for the Castro regime, many analysts believed that Cuban communism was doomed. Washington need only wait a little longer. For instance, in 1994 the Heritage Foundation’s John Sweeney proclaimed: “the embargo remains the only effective instrument available to the U.S. government in trying to force the economic and democratic concessions it has been demanding of Castro for over three decades. Maintaining the embargo will help end the Castro regime more quickly.” The latter’s collapse, he wrote, is “more likely in the near term than ever before.”
But 22 years later the Castro regime staggers on, an embarrassing specter from the past. Vintage 1950s autos held together with wire and tape compete with primitive Soviet models and modern luxury vehicles. Buildings look like they were last painted during the Mesozoic era. Access to food is limited, even with a ration book.
But real money, “hard currency” from foreign nations, buys anything one desires. When I visited Havana (legally) with a journalism group a decade ago, we stayed at a very nice European-owned hotel. Hard currency stores offered foreign goods, and representatives of foreign companies enjoyed all the luxuries of life. Cubans routinely approached tourists, selling cigars, touting private restaurants, and offering to act as tour guides—all for a modest price. So much for Fidel Castro’s vision of a revolutionary society.
Washington’s attempt to cripple a nearby Soviet ally during the Cold War made sense, but the belief that doing ever more of the same decades later would yield a different result suggests that U.S. policymakers suffer from at least a touch of insanity. More than a half century of sanctions have not sparked a popular uprising, forced the Castros and allies from power, moderated the regime, delivered democracy, promoted economic liberalization, cut regime ties with other communist systems, stopped foreign investment, or achieved much else of note.
In fact, this is a fairly common experience for sanctions. They can work, the broader the application and narrower the objective. But few governments are inclined to dismantle themselves under foreign pressure. Certainly not Fidel Castro. Not likely Raul Castro and those around him.
That shouldn’t surprise conservative Republicans, who never fell for the Castros’ humanitarian myth-making, or Donald Trump, who seems practical-minded. Yet after Fidel’s death the president-elect tweeted: “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.” During the campaign he told a Florida audience that unless the Castro (now Raul rather than Fidel) regime allowed political and religious freedom and released political prisoners, he would reverse Barack Obama’s opening to Cuba.
Such is the political power of Cuban Americans and political significance of Florida. Even serious Republicans who know better must act as if they believe a few more years of sanctions will turned Cuba into the beau ideal of capitalist democracy. Yet another ethnic lobby has badly distorted U.S. foreign policy to advance its peculiar priorities.
It would be wonderful, of course, if The Donald could end Cuban communism by simply speaking the word. Alas, a system that survived for a half century and withstood military invasion, assassination plots, and economic sanctions isn’t likely to collapse or surrender. It almost certainly will have to be tossed into history’s trash can by its own people. But the embargo won’t help them to do that.
Better to flood Cuba with Americans bearing dollars. Then the rewards from engagement will be obvious to all. That doesn’t guarantee Cuba will become free—the fearful regime actually has stepped up political repression and religious persecution over the last two years—but openness offers a better long-term alternative. Human rights leader Elizardo Sanchez, who I met on a (legal) trip to Cuba a decade ago, told the New York Times that the Obama policy had a positive effect: “The personal contact that comes from all the travel has a huge impact in terms of fighting propaganda.” It takes time to open doors in a closed society, he added, “but it’s happening.”
The Cuban regime has done its best to manipulate foreign investment to its advantage in the past, but the more the country is immersed in the world, the harder it will be for the regime to preserve its control over the sclerotic, impoverished, repressive system. Western contact was critical for China’s transformation. That hasn’t eliminated challenges from the U.S.-China relationship, but has resulted in a much freer and more prosperous country.
One of the most important benefits of eliminating the embargo would be to prevent the regime from blaming America for its problems. In fact, for this reason Cuban dissidents who I met on my trip were skeptical of the embargo. Before becoming House speaker even Paul Ryan admitted: “The embargo doesn’t work. It is a failed policy. It was probably justified when the Soviet Union existed and posed a threat through Cuba. I think it’s become more of a crutch for Castro to use to repress his people. All the problems he has, he blames the American embargo.”
In fact, Cuba’s poverty reflects socialist mismanagement, not U.S. sanctions. After all, if socialism is such a wonderful economic system, the culmination of human history, why should its success require access to the American market? Moreover, Cuba is not isolated: Europeans and others have invested on the island. Sanctions target Americans more than Cubans, and Cuban people more than Cuban elites.
Thankfully Fidel was unique in the way that he was transformed from murderous windbag into international icon. Neither Raul nor any other Cuban figure possesses his charisma. And successive communist revolutions have proved to be bloody and selfish power grabs. Nevertheless, even Fidel would have gained little foreign acclaim had he not been able to present himself as the heroic defender against arrogant Yanqui Imperialists. In effect, Washington made Commandante Fidel.
Cuba is a potential vacation spot, not a security threat, for Americans. The communist regime is obsolete, an artifact of what should be ancient history. The Cuban people deserve to be free, but neither Donald Trump nor America can liberate them. The embargo certainly won't do so. Washington has tried for a half century. The experiment has failed.
Fidel Castro's death increases hope for positive change in Cuba. True liberation is most likely if the U.S. government allows Americans to visit Cuba, invest in the Cuban economy, and trade with the Cuban people. President-elect Trump should seize the opportunity to help transform this communist dictatorship by expanding the opening begun by President Obama.