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  • Uncredited / The Associated Press

    President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro in December during a memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela in Soweto, South Africa.

Markos Kounalakis: Open Cuba; close Guantanamo

Published: Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014 - 12:00 am

Bang! That’s how the Cuban Revolution began. Fidel Castro’s “permanent revolution” is now on the verge of going out with a whimper.

As importantly, America’s historic lapse on Cuban soil is also about to disappear.

American polls show new support for normalizing relations with Cuba. Leading U.S. politicians such as Florida’s Charlie Crist and major media now advocate for change in the adversarial half-century policy that pits the United States against the tiny island nation. President Barack Obama’s recent handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro became a thawing gesture felt round the world.

The inevitability of normalized relations is just a question of timing. Will it come prior to the 2016 presidential elections? Or will it just take the passing of 87-year-old Fidel Castro, now more reclusive in his twilight?

Regardless of how or when, the certain end of the formalized estrangement between these two nations will be a death blow to the greatest ongoing justification for Castro’s revolution.

If the end of the Cold War is any indication, normalization will lead to an initial euphoria of increased family reunification. Families and businesses will try to reclaim lost property nationalized after the revolution. Thorough diplomatic negotiations, however, can preempt long legal battles. Early euphoria will give way to practical reality, and Cuba will face a painful transition, regardless of the post-Castro regime type – whether an elected democracy or, undesirably, a military dictatorship – and many will suffer through the changes.

The country already has a hard time sustaining its medical care and education systems. Whatever social equality currently exists is based on shared scarcity and privation. Fortunately, normalizing relations and ending the long embargo, which the Cubans refer to as “the blockade,” will flood the Havana markets with necessary food and other goods.

At first, some goods may be subsidized to soften the initial blow. But subsidies always come to an end, as the regime is well aware. In 1996, I was a journalism fellow reporting in Cuba during the “special period” characterized by food shortage and sacrifice. Back then, Cuba’s strategic partner and financial backer, the Soviet Union, had collapsed and its Russian successor state did not renew the deal to send subsidized fuel in exchange for sugar.

Keeping American triumphalism at bay after normalization – as Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush did at the end of the Cold War – will be necessary to allow average Cuban citizens, many of them living at the poverty level, to maintain their dignity and national pride. It will be a delicate dance to both encourage and support change, but also to prevent backsliding and profitable exploitation of a country unsophisticated in modern financial and investment structures and swindles, as in post-Berlin Wall Eastern Europe.

Property restitution and family reunification are simple issues, however, when compared to the need to release Cuba’s remaining political prisoners, including American aid worker Alan Gross.

Holding political prisoners in the remaining Cuban gulag who have dared to speak out against the leadership or the party or collectivism’s failure to provide basic nutrition and needs, repressing religion or targeting pro-market forces that are not in the service of the ruling elite – this has to end, and the remaining prisoners, including Gross, need to be given back their freedom and their voices.

When it comes to prisoners in Cuba, America also has to reckon with Guantánamo Bay. Gitmo is beyond an embarrassment. It is manifest hypocrisy and the cudgel used by other nations to beat us over our moral stance on human rights. Prisoners at Guantánamo are accused of al-Qaida affiliations and terrorism, a more serious charge than Cuba’s political prisoners. They are not equivalents and there is no comparison. But one thing that stands out as exceptionally backward in American human rights performance is the previous dark practice of “enhanced” interrogation methods on the island of Cuba. It was not just wrong. It was torture.

Obama recommitted himself during this year’s State of the Union address to closing down Guantánamo prison. The time has come to shut down this dark chapter in America’s extrajudicial history and bury the remnants of the debate over torture. U.S. Sen. John McCain, a former POW in Vietnam, would be the perfect person to travel to Cuba and shut down the prison, making sure the last of the prisoners are transferred to other nations or, if possible, into the American judicial system.

This suggestion is not a quid pro quo solution, but the symmetry and symbolism of the actions can bring Cuba back into a human rights-respecting community of nations and turn America’s open wound into a scar that can eventually fade.


Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Reach him at markos@stanford.edu and follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.

Read more articles by Markos Kounalakis



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