One thing that students for the past twenty years have asked is why we continue to have sanctions on Cuba. The official reason was that we want to pressure them to move towards democracy and improve human rights. Yet when a policy fails to achieve it’s goals after a half century, it’s pretty clear you have a failed policy. Indeed, while almost all the rest of the Communist world reformed, Cuba has remained a hold out. To be sure, it does, along with Europe, thumb its nose at US sanctions, cutting deals and promoting tourism with EU countries. The US ends up looking like the stubborn child who refuses to admit being wrong out of fear of looking bad.
Of course, the real reason the sanctions weren’t removed is Florida. Before the year 2000 students were skeptical that the state could be so important in electoral politics. After the Gore-Bush fight over Florida, they understood. Yes, it’s more complex than that, tied up in Cold War ideology and right wing causes, but the power of the Cuban exile community in Florida, which until recently was almost universally opposed to opening ties, was key to Presidential timerity on the issue.
President Obama and the new Democratic Congress have finally dropped that failed policy, at least in part, allowing travel and more openings with Cuba. In response Cuban President Raul Castro announced that Cuba is willing to enter into talks for major human rights reform, freedom of the press, and anything the US wants to talk about. It appears that wanting positive change in Cuba was best served by relaxing restrictions rather than maintaining them!
To be sure, Cuba today stands in a different position than during the Cold War, when its Soviet ally bought sugar and supported the island as Castro undertook his socialist experiment. Since then, despite connections to Europe, Russia and other parts of Latin America — including help from Venzeuelan leader Hugo Chavez — the country has clearly not had sustainable economic policies. Perhaps driven by the same kind of pride and bravado that led American conservatives to stick to the sanctions so hard over the years, the Cubans were reluctant to make the first move. Now that Obama has made a gesture of friendship, they have responded positively.
I doubt that this whole conflict with Cuba was necessary. When Castro overthrew mafia controlled dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, most of the world celebrated. Castro was young, charismatic, and arguably had the interests of the Cuban people in his heart. He correctly realized that Latin America needed land reform — it was intolerable that a tiny percentage could control most of the land, with farmers working as illiterate peasants with no health care or education in many places. This was a remnant of colonialism, and US corporations were more than willing to buy off the corrupt elite to further their profits.
For his part, Castro hoped that the US might tolerate, or even support his calls for reform. He did not declare himself a Communist originally, nor did he embrace the Soviets. The Cubans and Americans had discussions, but it became clear there was one thing the US could not tolerate: Castro trying to spread his revolution elsewhere. Even though the Americans knew that Castro was right about the injustices and inequities throughout Latin America, they feared that revolts against pro-American dictators would both undercut the profitability of American corporations doing business in Latin America, and offer the Soviets opportunities to expand their influence. Castro refused to accept his movement being limited to Cuba, and that was enough for the US to decide Castro had to go.
The US tried to overthrow the regime in 1961, which led Castro to embrace the Soviets. The next year that brought us the closest we ever came to a nuclear war. The Soviets started to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, trying to match US missiles in Turkey. At one point, the Kennedy White House was willing to use the provocation as an excuse to invade Cuba and take out Castro. Thanks especially to the objections of Bobby Kennedy, who felt that the US couldn’t be seen as a bully state that overthrew regimes just because we didn’t like them (‘my brother cannot be another Tojo,’ he said, warning against a surprise invasion akin to Pearl Harbor), this was rejected. Good thing too — turns out that the Soviets already had functioning missiles ready to go, and the commander in the field had already decided that if Cuba were attacked, he’d launch. If we had followed the original plan, we’d have had WWIII back in 1962. The Soviets took that power away from field commanders afterwards (they weren’t ready for all out war), and luckily both sides stepped away from the crisis. The US promised to remove the missiles from Turkey and not invade Cuba, the Soviets promised to remove the missiles from Cuba, and remain silent on the connection with removal of the Turkish missiles (which would be a year later).
After that, the US still tried to get rid of Castro, but failed. Ultimately, after fifty years in power, Castro’s health caused him to relinquish power to his brother. Castro’s regime was not all bad either — he expanded health care and education to the masses, and arguably made Cubans much better off than they were under Batista, who cared not a wit for the people. But Castro’s embrace of socialist ideology blinded him to the need for freedom, and ultimately the need to move towards democracy. He justified human rights abuses in the name of both ideology and fear of American aggression.
Hence the stalemate. Castro was successful enough that the Cuban people did not revolt — his regime is relatively popular. But he is repressive enough that many wish to escape, and even those sympathetic to Fidel believe Cuba needs to change. The time is right for an opening, Barack Obama took the first move, and now it looks like Cuba is reciprocating.
The US need not demand Cuba become an overnight pro-western democratic republic. As we learned in Eastern Europe, change from communism to democracy is slow and often needs to be gradual. But both countries can benefit immensely from an improved relationship, and if they treat each other with mutual respect and patience, we may finally be seeing the oddest and once the most dangerous aspect of the Cold War finally fade.
To those who yearn for the victory of Cuban socialism, this will be disappointing. To those on the right who want to see Castro defeated and disgraced, a gradual, successful transition will be unsatisfying. To most Cubans, however, it could be the start of a bright future.