April 24, 2009
Without doubt, the half-century-old U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba failed to democratize Cuba’s regime and liberate its citizens. Also without doubt, trading with Cuba over that half century, as Canada, European nations, and more than 100 other countries have done, has likewise failed.
Cuba is a communist dictatorship. Short of revolution, it will change at the times and on the choosings of its dictators. Barack Obama’s relaxation in aid of freeing political prisoners and promoting human rights — little different from the relaxations of past U.S. administrations — will cause the Castro regime to free not a single soul.
That said, Cuba has been liberalizing. Five years ago, when I visited Havana for 10 days, the average Cuban was tightly controlled. He was not allowed contact with foreigners; he was not allowed to patronize quality restaurants or hotels; he could not purchase most of the goods and services available to the Cuban communist elite — everything from aspirin and other pharmaceuticals to foods, even Cuban coffee.
Last month, as I observed on another 10-day trip, the lot of Cubans had dramatically improved. Cubans now approach tourists without fear; they travel the country and stay in hotels; they eat in the same restaurants as the tourists and Communist officials; they shop where they please for consumer goods and services. They even have access to communication devices: Some retailers offer cell phones, others internet services.
Apart from these gains in personal liberty, brought in by Raul Castro one year ago, privatization is creeping into the agricultural sector and political power is devolving to the municipal level.
Cuba’s reforms under Raul Castro represent a startling break from the past. Obama’s reforms, in contrast, represent a continuation of the past, one that could not be less inconsequential.
First inconsequence: Obama is removing the current cap on dollars that Cuban-Americans may send to relatives in Cuba — $1200 per year, or five times the average Cuban wage of $240 per year. While some Cuban-Americans will doubtless increase their remittances, most Cuban-Americans — more than 90% — don’t reach the current cap as it is.
Second inconsequence: Obama is allowing Cuban-Americans unlimited visits to Cuba, rather than the official limit of one trip every three years. Yet unlimited travel is already the unofficial limit — over the last decade, some 200,000 Americans a year have been visiting Cuba, about half of them illegally, with the governments of both countries enabling the practice. The Castro regime took care not to stamp the passports of Americans who arrived via Canada or Mexico and the U.S. government took care to look the other way when they returned — not one American is known to have been prosecuted for violating the so-called travel ban.
Why would Obama opt for inconsequential reforms when public opinion in the U.S., including public opinion among Cuban-Americans, favoured more dramatic changes, including a lifting of the Cuban embargo?
Perhaps because Obama knows that the Cuban embargo is purely symbolic — its imposition did little to impede Cuban economic development and its removal would do little to improve the Cuban economy. The embargo’s main value to the Cuban regime is as an explanation of its own failures. Its main value to the Obama Administration would come of its cancellation as a reward to Raul, if he ever needs to wring a face-saving concession from Obama.
Cuba is, in fact, China in miniature, a country liberalizing its economy and creating a consumer-focussed middle class while tolerating no dissent that would threaten the regime. It could be no other way.
All tyrannical regimes fear the fate that could await them when they fall — they saw it with Ceausescu’s execution by firing squad in Romania in 1989 and more recently with Saddam’s hanging in 2006. The Botha regime in South Africa was spared a general bloodletting when it fell, through the guise of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, because Nelson Mandela and the ANC knew they needed the apartheid ruling class’s expertise to avoid Zimbabwe-style economic ruin. Cubans after Castro will rely on Cuban-Americans to rebuild their economy; they won’t need a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to spare the generals now in charge. And they may remember that it was Raul Castro himself who directed the execution squads to slaughter the supporters of the overthrown Batista government.
Obama has nothing of value to offer Raul. And Raul has nothing of value he’ll prematurely part with.
Lawrence Solomon is executive director of Urban Renaissance, a division of Energy Probe Research Foundation.