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The Castro Bros Aren't Feeling The Bern

Walter Russell Mead

A huge U.S. delegation of officials, led by President Barack Obama, visited Cuba for the first presidential visit since the Coolidge years. The Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor and slew of less exalted officials were all in the entourage—an eyebrow-raising focus on Cuba, especially for an administration that says the U.S. should be pivoting away from Europe and the Middle East because they don’t matter so much anymore.

To some, this trip looks like a victory lap for a resurgent American Left. The Sandernistas (led by the Senator from Vermont himself) certainly think so. And some horrified conservatives noted the photo of Obama and his team with a giant image of Che in the background, forgetting past appearances where American presidents have appeared before or even under images of communist leaders like Mao, Ho and even Lenin himself. But if Che loomed in the background in Havana, Obama’s visit is more about the liquidation of Latin socialism than its triumph. With socialist parties in Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela all struggling to defend their poor economic records and corrupt politicians in the face of centrist opponents, Latin America isn’t feeling the Bern these days.

Even if this visit is overkill—and is more fanboy gushing than actual diplomacy—the United States actually does have some business to transact with Havana, if Raul is in the mood. Venezuela is a failing state, and Cuba could play a major role in preventing massive suffering in a neighboring Latin American country. It is as clear even to top Cuban communists as it is to Americans to the right of Sean Penn that the Chavez “revolution” was both a massive misadventure and the definitive failure of left-wing ideology in Latin America. If Venezuela, with some of the world’s largest oil reserves, managed to melt down after just a few years of Chavismo, its unlikely, to say the least, that poor Danny Ortega is going to make a go of Nicaragua, or that Haiti can pull itself up by its bootstraps by following the leftie playbook.

The Cubans understand what is happening in Venezuela very well. Not only do they have close intelligence links with Caracas, it was the realization that Venezuela could no longer prop up Cuba that led the Castro brothers to accept the opening with the U.S. in the first place.

As nobody knows better than the Castro brothers, Cuban socialism has never worked without a sugar daddy. From 1959 to 1989 the Soviet Union kept Cuba afloat. Things turned ugly in Cuba when communism collapsed in Moscow, and only the intervention of Hugo Chavez in then-rich Venezuela turned things around. Now socialism has burned through Venezuela’s bank account, and the Venezuelan regime is struggling to feed its own people. Continuing to bail out Havana? Not really an option any more.

Given that the collapse of the Latin Left is the basis of Cuba’s openness to Washington, President Obama should be probing to see whether the Cubans are willing to help clean up the mess that socialism is leaving in its wake. What President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and Susan Rice should be asking President Castro is how the Cuban government can help broker a transition back to some kind of workable system in Venezuela. Will Cuba, in exchange for U.S. help climbing out of its own economic dead end, help the U.S. ensure a stable transition in Venezuela?

If Cuba is willing to be genuinely helpful in this matter, there is a lot it can do. Cuba helped build the dysfunctional thugocracy that now calls itself the government of Venezuela, and Cuba could do a lot to help Caracas move back toward some kind of reality-based politics. The Castro brothers could provide ideological cover for a retreat to realism, and if the U.S. and Cubans worked together, we could significantly increase the odds of a peaceful transition to a workable political system in an important neighbor.

In their closing years in power the Castro brothers seem to have acknowledged that the socialist model doesn’t offer a way out for the Latin world. The question is whether they are willing to play a constructive role in helping to bury the corpse. President Obama, given his own history, is going to be the most sympathetic interlocutor the brothers can hope for in Washington; he won’t rub their noses in the failure of their hopes the way a President Rubio or Cruz would. If they are willing to close out their careers on a note of responsible statesmanship, this is the best chance they have to get that done. And, frankly, if that is the course they choose to follow, we wish them success.

This may be—indeed it probably is—too much to hope. The Castros know that socialism has failed Latin America, but they may not be ready to act constructively on that belief. Their motives in opening the door to American tourists and trade, and their rationale for allowing the Obama state visit are probably nothing more than regime survival. While they suspect that the opening to the U.S. will end up transforming Cuba in ways that will ultimately bring the Castro era to an end, they know that only U.S. tourism, trade, and perhaps investment can provide the hard currency needed to keep the Castro flag flying for a few more years. Certainly, the harsh and unnecessary treatment of dissidents, arresting Elizardo Sanchez, closing down a peaceful march by the Ladies in White, shows that control over Cuba is still what matters most to the communist leaders. The signal to Cubans was not only that the brothers remain firmly in charge, it was also to humiliate Obama, to kick sand in his face.

But reality remains. Socialism has failed both in Cuba and in Venezuela. The Cuban people know just what is happening in Venezuela, and they know, too, that the two excuses that the Castros have always made for socialism’s abysmal record in Cuba (no oil, and the U.S. embargo) simply fall to pieces in the light of the Venezuela catastrophe. They know that the Castros aren’t getting any younger, and they know that integration with the U.S. economy represents the only possible future for their island.

Just possibly, Fidel and Raul have genuinely drawn the appropriate conclusions from more than half a century of socialist failure in the Americas. Just possibly, they want to burnish their legacies by doing something to help Venezuela step away from the abyss, especially if they can get some U.S. help for Cuba by doing so. Investigating that possibility was the most important reason, other than grandstanding, for the President’s visit. Let’s hope the subject came up.

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