President-elect Barack Obama wants to thaw relations with Cuba, but those who know the communist island nation best say his ideas about ending the trade embargo and dealing directly with the Castro regime are fraught with peril.
Cuban leader Fidel Castro will celebrate the 50th anniversary of his takeover of the island nation just three weeks before Obama inherits the one foreign policy problem that has proved stubbornly resistant to change by nine previous presidents.
Even North Korea has shown more flexibility in negotiation than Castro’s Cuba, analysts contend. Now, though, pressure from a host of sectors — the media, academics, liberal activists, big business, farm-state legislators — is building on the incoming administration to do away with the embargo that has held firm for 47 years.
They point to polls and shifts in the powerful Cuban-American electorate that supposedly reflect support for ending the embargo. There’s also pressure by big business — especially agribusiness — to expand already lucrative commercial trade with the island.
Advocates of isolating Cuba "have been losing a lot of their mojo here," Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., who has long advocated greater engagement with Cuba, told the Los Angeles Times. Flake and others argue that ending the embargo with Cuba will help push it toward a Chinese model of authoritarian capitalism.
"You hope that in the end, their desire for the revenue just overwhelms their reluctance," Flake said.
But while Obama has said he’s willing to talk to Fidel and Raul Castro with few restrictions, opponents of lifting the embargo suggest he should tread carefully for several reasons:A weakened Cuba is still a security threat. It is bolstered by subsidized oil from Venezuela, and is continually strengthening ties with Iran, Russia and China. A defiant Raul Castro recently opened a summit of Caribbean nations by vowing to fight the United States for 50 more years if necessary.
“The stalemate with Cuba has nothing to do with ‘not talking,’ as Obama simplistically characterized it,” says Henry Gomez, managing editor of Babalublog.com, a leading blog of Cuban issues that works closely with bloggers on the island.
“The debate is not about whether or not we should have open lines of communication with regimes that are adversarial in nature,” Gomez wrote. “In Cuba’s case we certainly do have those lines open. Cuba has an interests section in Washington, D.C., and the United States has one in Havana. The United States has negotiated agreements on immigration, drug interdiction, and energy exploration. The real sticking point has to do with Cuba’s sovereignty, or rather the Castro brothers’ perverted vision of what sovereignty means. In their minds there is no distinction between that concept and their divine right to abuse, imprison, and kill Cuba’s citizens.”
Obama must remember, Gomez and other seasoned Cuba observers caution, that the Cuban regime isn’t subject to elections – its sole criteria for improving relations with the United States will be how such a move affects the regime’s grip on power. Finally, Obama can only do so much without congressional support. Ending the embargo will need congressional approval, and perhaps more concessions than the Cuban government is ready to give.
"They want to have control and they know that if they begin to open up the economic process, the political power may leave and this thing may fall apart," Jaime Suchlicki, a professor at the University of Miami and one of the leading analysts of Cuba in the United States, told Fox News.
But critics contend that none of these are good reasons for sustaining a policy that has failed for five decades to topple a totalitarian regime. Only by ending the embargo – and putting the pressure for change on the Castro regime – can the United States bring democracy to Cuba.
The logic goes something like this: By opening up the communist island to tourists, goods and services, relationships will form and the free exchange of ideas will wither the dictatorship from the inside. It will then peacefully collapse.
The only problem with this position, Suchlicki and other analysts say, is that ideas and goods already flow into Cuba. It’s what happens to them once they get there that’s the problem.
Cubans are already exposed to foreign media, international tourism and a wealth of literature. They watch American films, and routinely bump into European and Canadian tourists, who swarm the island’s beaches, resorts and low-cost medical centers that only cater to foreigners.
Indeed, the United States is now the largest exporter of food to Cuba, earning upward of $600 million this year, and one of its five biggest trading partners. It’s quite easy for foreigners — even Americans who discretely enter by flying from Mexico or another country – to rent cars and travel the island unmolested. Tourism alone generated $2.2 billion for Cuba in 2007, and the island expects a record 2.34 million visitors this year.
But all of these goods, people and ideas are swallowed by a decrepit, rigid Marxist economy and a brutal police state surrounded by hostile seas, critics charge. There are two currencies — one for residents, and another dollar-pegged currency for foreigners and elites. Property is owned by the state, and private business is virtually non-existent. Food is rationed by the state, and people change homes through an illegal swap market conducted in parks and street corners. Speech and assembly is strictly monitored by the government, which may swoop down at any moment and throw political activists, writers and organizers in jail for years after sham trials.
Despite these obstacles, a lively community of bloggers and activists thrives in Cuba. Their work can be readily accessed – in Spanish or English – on the Internet. Though many, too, want liberalization of the embargo, few harbor any illusions that change will come under the regime currently headed by Fidel’s brother, Raul Castro. The Cuban government recently announced new restrictions on bloggers on the island, limiting their access to critical sites.
On her blog Generacion Y, which is offered in both Spanish and English, Havana-based Yoani Sánchez reported last week that she showed up at a forum to challenge Mariela Castro -- the daughter of Raul Castro and niece of Fidel -- about the security situation on the island. Mariela Castro is the director of Cuban National Center for Sex Education and an active campaigner for the rights of gays, who were repressed and jailed for many years under the regime.
Sánchez not only blogged about the encounter, but she shot and posted a video on her blog:
Mariela Castro: Including treatment for transgender people is something that’s called for in the law. We don’t ask for more.
Sánchez: I’d like to ask if this entire campaign being undertaken, in some way, for society to accept sexual preference could, at some point, move to other roles and will also fight for tolerance of other aspects which could be points of view and political and ideological preferences. Will we also come out of these closets?
Mariela Castro: I don’t know because I don’t work in that area. The ideological and political field is outside my responsibility. I think I am doing the best I can given my ability.
The flaw in assuming that money and ideas alone will change Cuba rests on the absurd notion that the current regime would allow change, or peacefully succumb to it, according to Suchlicki, the dean of Cuba historians in the United States and author of “Cuba: From Columbus to Castro,” a popular history of the island.
“A consolidated Raul regime will most likely follow the policies of Fidel, offering few new substantive domestic or foreign policy initiatives,” Sucklicki wrote in the Harvard International Review last year. “… Any pro-US action would mean the rejection of one of Fidel Castro’s main legacies: anti-Americanism. Pro-US action might create uncertainty within the Raul government, leading to friction and factionalism.
“From Cuba’s point of view, the United States has little to offer that is not already in Cuba: American tourists, which Raul neither wants nor needs, American investments which he fears may subvert his highly centralized and controlled economy, and products that he can buy cheaper from other countries,” Suchlicki wrote.
Obama will have to tread carefully in any move he makes toward Cuba. Unilaterally lifting restrictions on travel and money flows may only strengthen the regime, some analysts say, without helping the Cuban people. The government’s monopoly on commerce will allow it to benefit with commercial trade, and remittances to Cuba by relatives in the United States and elsewhere benefits a small minority of average Cubans, some studies indicate. Not everyone has a brother or sister in Miami.
President Bill Clinton first eased the embargo in 2000 by allowing U.S. companies to sell some agricultural and medical goods to Cuba, resulting in more than $430 million in trade in 2007. President George W. Bush tightened restrictions on Cuban Americans in 2004. They can visit immediate family members once every three years and cannot send relatives more than $1,200 a year.
Obama has promised to begin his shift in strategy by first lifting these restrictions on relatives. They could regularly travel to Cuba, and send the sums of money they see fit to help their relatives there. But Suchlicki, considered the dean of Cuba studies in the United States, has consistently warned that increasing the cash flow into Cuba will not weaken its leadership in any way.
Over the last two decades, Castro has allowed private enterprise and dollar exchange at times, then moved to crush it when it appeared to be growing too large to control. Allowing a large private sector to develop would risk creating other sources of power and leadership that could one day threaten the regime’s hold on power.
Embargo advocates say that Obama should only move to negotiate if the regime makes some unprecedented moves at freeing up Cuban society. The most important of these would be the release of Cuba’s estimated 219 political prisoners, the recognition of fundamental human rights like speech and assembly, and the legalization of independent political parties and labor unions.
“It remains oddly difficult for pundits to accept that every generation of Cuban Americans not only cares deeply about freedom and democracy in Cuba, but also remains strongly supportive of current U.S. law and policy,” Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee, wrote recently in the Miami Herald.
“Unilaterally easing sanctions would only send a mixed message, producing distractions and delays that would add to the burden borne by Cuba's beleaguered political prisoners and opposition activists,” Claver-Carone added. “It would be a lost historic opportunity.”