Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “The U.S. embargo against Cuba is the single biggest reason that Washington and Havana do not enjoy better relations. If we want the island nation to become a democracy, we should drop sanctions and pursue a policy of aggressive engagement.”
It is a simple and seductive argument, which explains why so many people have embraced it. Unfortunately, it is based on a fallacious reading of history and a naïve understanding of the Cuban dictatorship.
Over the past four decades, every American president who has pursued a serious rapprochement with Havana Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama has been left shaking his head in frustration. Whenever the United States has extended an olive branch, the Castro regime has responded with an act of foreign aggression (such as lending military support to Communist forces in Africa or killing four Cuban-American pilots) or domestic repression (such as jailing a U.S. citizen on bogus espionage charges) so provocative that it effectively ruined any chance of détente.
President Obama’s experience is instructive. In April 2009, he relaxed U.S. sanctions on travel and remittances to Cuba. Then, a few days later, in his speech at the opening ceremony of the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, he emphasized his sincere determination to improve bilateral ties. “The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba,” Obama said. “I’m prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues from drugs, migration, and economic issues, to human rights, free speech, and democratic reform. Now, let me be clear, I’m not interested in talking just for the sake of talking. But I do believe that we can move U.S.-Cuban relations in a new direction.”
The Castro brothers had other plans. In December of that same year, Alan Gross, a USAID contractor working in Cuba, was arrested and charged with spying. His real “crime” was helping the island’s tiny Jewish population obtain Internet access. Last year, Gross received a 15-year prison sentence. He remains in jail today, despite an aggressive U.S. campaign to secure his release. According to his lawyer, the 63-year-old Gross now “has difficulty walking and has developed a mass behind his right shoulder blade.” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland has said that he “is no longer able to walk in his cell.” (This past weekend, the Cuban government finally handed over his medical records.)
Gross has essentially become a hostage a human bargaining chip that Raúl Castro & Co. can use to extract concessions from Washington. Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who has tried to broker Gross’s release, claims that Havana would be willing to exchange him for several Cuban intelligence agents currently imprisoned in the United States. Yet it is unclear whether the Castro regime would actually endorse such a prisoner swap. Moreover, from a U.S. perspective, trading multiple foreign agents who were conducting illegal espionage on behalf of an anti-American dictatorship, in return for a single U.S. humanitarian worker who was unjustly and outrageously detained, would set a terrible precedent.
Gross’s initial arrest in 2009 came amid a broader government crackdown on dissent, and recent events confirm that opposition leaders remain under siege. Earlier this month, a prominent Cuban dissident known as “Antúnez” testified before the U.S. Senate via video link, and then was promptly arrested and savagely attacked by Cuban security forces. According to the Miami Herald, Antúnez was “beaten and sprayed with pepper gas in a police jail cell,” before eventually being released.
How could the United States ever have warm relations with a government that would brazenly and brutally assault a democracy activist two days after he offered Senate testimony? For that matter, if the Castro regime really did want a better relationship with Washington, why would it engage in such nakedly hostile behavior?
Which brings us back to the much-maligned U.S. embargo. It is deeply unpopular throughout Latin America? Yes. Is it the largest barrier to a major thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations? No. The largest barrier is the Cuban regime itself, which refuses to implement the most basic political reforms or respect the most fundamental human rights. Indeed, for all the hoopla over Raúl Castro’s modest economic reforms which Cuban dissident economist Oscar Chepe has described as “too little, too limited and too late” his government is still among the most repressive on earth. When Pope Benedict XVI visited the island in March, a senior Cuban official told reporters, “We are updating our economic model, but we are not talking about political reform.”
Some embargo critics argue that American tourism and investment would topple the dictatorship or compel it to allow free elections. These critics don’t appreciate the nature of Cuban tyranny. If the Communist leadership doesn’t want political reform, there will be no political reform. Just ask all the European countries that have been sending tourists and investment to Cuba for many years. According to the European Union’s website, “The EU is Cuba’s largest trading partner, with a third of all trade, almost one half of foreign direct investment and more than half of all tourists coming from Europe.”
I cannot put it better than journalist Charles Lane did in a 1999 New Republic article:
There will be no meaningful thaw with Cuba, and certainly no democratic opening there, until a Cuban Gorbachev emerges. Meanwhile, perhaps we should make a standing offer to Fidel Castro: We'll lift the embargo, provide massive aid to rebuild the island, and give back the U.S. base at Guantanamo if he'll simply hold a free, multiparty, internationally monitored national election, just like the ones they have in every other Latin American country. Let him turn that offer down and then try to explain to his people, and the world, why he did.
Raúl Castro is not the Cuban Gorbachev. But when he (age 81) and Fidel (nearly 86) finally die, genuine political reformers may emerge and take power. Only then will a true U.S.-Cuban détente be possible.
This article is available in Spanish here.