WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s historic opening to Cuba is long overdue – and has a chance of hastening the Castro dictatorship’s demise. Critics of the accord should explain why they believe a policy that has failed miserably for half a century could ever work.
What is it about Cuba that makes reasonable people take leave of their senses? The United States maintained full diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, hardly a couple of peaceniks, opened the door to China. History argues powerfully for engagement as the best way to deal with repressive, adversarial regimes. Yet hard-liners insist Cuba must be treated differently.
Visiting the island might change some minds. I went to Cuba 10 times between 2000 and 2004 while researching a book, “Last Dance in Havana.” Each trip gave me more regard for the Cuban people – and less for the Castro regime.
The Cubans I met were energetic, ambitious, well-educated – and thoroughly stifled by a gerontocratic government that ruled through a combination of calibrated repression, impenetrable bureaucracy and tropical whimsy. What was permissible today might be outlawed tomorrow. I remember once reading a decree listing hundreds of occupations that citizens had briefly been permitted to practice as entrepreneurs – working for themselves, not the state – but that were again being put off-limits. Among them was “birthday party clown.”
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Cuba is much poorer than it should be, given its abundant human capital. This is almost entirely due to abysmal economic theory and management; communism, as the rest of the world has realized, is no way to create wealth. But antagonistic U.S. policy has provided the Castro brothers with a convenient scapegoat – and a rationale for repression.
One afternoon, back when Fidel Castro was still large and in charge, I heard The Bearded One speak to a Havana auditorium filled with young athletes. Amid what was basically an extemporaneous paean to patriotism and physical fitness, he worked in boilerplate references to the bloqueo, or blockade – the U.S. trade embargo – and the relentless “aggression” of the hegemonic great power to the north.
For more than 50 years, the Castro government has told Cubans that such luxuries as freedom of expression and assembly unfortunately cannot be granted because of the constant threat from the United States, which sought to destroy the Cuban revolution and erase its accomplishments in areas such as education, medicine and sports.
I’ve met few Cubans who swallowed this line uncritically. But I’ve met many, including bitter critics of the regime, who believed U.S. policy was counterproductive if only because it gave the Castros a nominal reason for clinging to power.
If he follows through on Wednesday’s agreement to establish full diplomatic relations, President Raul Castro will essentially be abandoning this time-tested line of argument. That suggests he must be pretty desperate.
Indeed, the Cuban economy is so moribund that the government has been forced to permit a once-unthinkable expansion of the private-sector economy. Cubans can now legally buy and sell property, and entrepreneurship – while still limited – is encouraged. The reforms may be tentative and half-baked but they reflect a grudging acknowledgment that socialist principles won’t put food on the table.
This desperation is why Obama won a deal so lopsided in favor of the United States. He released three Cuban spies who have already served long terms in prison. In return, Cuba released Alan Gross – who never should have been arrested or imprisoned in the first place – and Rolando Sarraf Trujillo who spied for the United States inside Cuba, plus a reported 53 political prisoners who have been languishing in Cuban jails.
Establishing full diplomatic relations should be seen as a U.S. gain, not a giveaway. As we have learned from experience with the rest of the erstwhile communist world, anything that gives Cubans more exposure to American values and ideals is for the good. Vocal opponents of the Castro regime should be pressing Congress to completely lift the travel ban and the trade embargo. Fill Havana’s hotels with sales reps and property developers; flood Varadero’s beaches with sun-seeking U.S. tourists.
None of this is a “lifeline” to the Cuban Communist Party, which is no more likely to be overthrown anytime soon than the Chinese version. The agreement should properly be seen as leverage that can, and I believe will, move the Cuban regime toward deeper and more meaningful reforms. History will record this as a very bad week for the Castro brothers and a very good week for the Cuban people.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson @washpost.com.