Cuba’s Future

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.

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  1. #1 by Mike Lovell on April 17, 2009 - 14:04

    The Cuban Issue has always been one of great interest. I once read somewhere that the state of U.S.-Cuban relations greatly saddened Fidel, as he saw what the U.S. could offer both within our country, but as well as within his, and had his own personal love affair with America on a more personal level.

    However, given the politics of the time, he was forced to somewhat play one half of the stubborn playground enemies, with us being the other half. And even after the Cold War, we were both stuck trying to save face despite failures, ours in policy, his in the idea of evolving ideology.

    Despite being able to classify myself as a touch on the anti-communinst side, I was at a much earlier age, able to see the folly in our policies as being far too harsh for encouraging any form of real change in ideological standpoints from Castro.

    I’m going to have to ask my brother in law what his family thinks of the new situation, as his grandparents and parents came over and took advantage of the Cuban immigrant policy with regards to reaching dry land. He and my sister are both more liberal, while the rest of the family seems to be very decidely anti-Castro and very much Republican because of this.

  2. #2 by henitsirk on April 21, 2009 - 03:00

    “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.”

    Maybe I’m just naive or something, but I am really tired of the US fostering foreign policy that solely focuses on our economic growth and security. As if there weren’t enough evidence that you can have more or less an “everybody wins” situation if you support each other instead of repressing or covertly subverting that which you don’t like. Plus it always ends up biting us in the end– e.g., Afghanistan, Iran/Contra, etc. Since when is economics the end-all and be-all of human existence?

  3. #3 by Scott Erb on April 22, 2009 - 13:13

    Mike – one has to wonder what would have happened if Fidel had a decent curve ball. He tried out with the Senators and I guess the report was that he had a good fast ball, but that wouldn’t be enough to make it in the majors. Being a revolutionary was his second choice as a career! Yeah, it would be interesting what your brother in law’s grandparents think — and why (personal grudge, belief about what needs to be done, etc.) It does seem that most people who want to change relations with Cuba don’t embrace Castro’s policies, but figure that what we’ve been doing certainly hasn’t worked.

  4. #4 by Scott Erb on April 22, 2009 - 13:17

    I think you’re right, Henitsirk. Elites make foreign policy, and they have elite interests in mind, rationalizing them through ideology and the vague guise of ‘national interest.’ But if we had defined our national interest in terms real core principles and focused on practical ways to take seriously the condition of average folk in the rest of the world, maybe we’d all be better off. But it may not have been as good for business. I really think we could have made a deal with Castro that we’d try to support reform in Latin America against repressive dictators if he worked with us to oppose Soviet influence and together we could have supported humanist non-communist reform. But in that era and with the power structures the way they were, that really wasn’t a serious option.

  5. #5 by henitsirk on April 22, 2009 - 18:48

    But, at least in theory, wouldn’t helping others boost the economy because then the others would have more money to spend? I sense that the “bad for business” meme comes from a place of fear of lack, of a certain sense of protectionism.

  6. #6 by Scott Erb on April 23, 2009 - 18:21

    Yes, I think it would benefit the world economy if you had real growth in third world countries, especially now as we dip in recession. Though I wonder…what happens if all these other countries are competing for oil, what happens if they start adding to global pollution? It may be that the earth can’t take our kind of economic growth for the entire world. It may be that their future prosperity might requite us to rethink our approach to resource use and economic values. Perhaps the current economic crisis will get us to start thinking along those lines.

  7. #7 by henitsirk on April 23, 2009 - 19:31

    Well, I’m certainly not proposing foisting “our kind of economic growth” on the rest of the world! Personally I think growth is overrated compared with sustainability. Maybe wiser heads than I have debunked this idea, but it seems to me that economics can’t be that divorced from natural processes: always seeking out balance. Constant (rampant) growth just can’t be good.

    The third world surely surely needs to have some growth, and that will probably involve increasing resource consumption to some degree. But there’s a big difference between expanding people’s health and self-sufficiency and hornswoggling them into desiring SUVs and corn syrup.

  8. #8 by Mike Lovell on April 23, 2009 - 19:35

    WHOA WHOA WHOA Henitsirk..back off the corn syrup argument!!! I drink coffee during the day to stay up, but I need my bladder to slow down while I’m working at night while still feeding my system caffeine. So, my delivery system of soda, which contains some of that addictively good high fructose corn syrup!! Although I have to admit, I do like that Jone’s Soda which uses real sugar, but they need to make it in bottles that fit into my patrol car’s cupholders instead of tipping about and falling over!

  9. #9 by Scott Erb on April 23, 2009 - 19:51

    OK, we need to strive for sustainability, but maintain a supply of corn syrup. I can live with that. (After all, without some Karo syrup on top, peanut butter sandwiches are just too dry…) Then “high fructose” corn syrup! (Homer Simpson drool….)

    (On the serious side the Stockholm conference in 1972 identified the problem and proposed sustainable development…but so far, there’s been little real progress, especially on the ‘sustainable’ side).

  10. #10 by henitsirk on April 23, 2009 - 19:52

    Sorry, Mike, no can do. Corn syrup is evil! Bad for you, and heavily subsidized by cheap fossil fuels. Don’t get me started on hydrogenated oil!

    Did you say that you are cruising around in a patrol car amped up on soda? Scary!

  11. #11 by Mike Lovell on April 23, 2009 - 20:18

    Henitsirk-
    Clearly you know not what you speak of. Despite my diet consisting mostly of that which health nuts decry, I havent seen as much as a simple cold since January of 2001. I abuse my body with little to no sleep (work overnights, hang with my 5 yr old during day, sleep for a few hours in the evening), drink massive amounts of caffeinated beverages, smoke (I really should quit, but I guess I’m not ready yet), and generally eat junk at random times of the day. I’ll match my overall health, and my physical performance against anyone’s anytime. All I’m saying is let ME have it…you do what you want! ;)

    As for the fossil fuel subsidy…..EVERYTHING we consume is heavily subsidized by fossil fuels unless you grow it yourself, otherwise it wouldnt make it to market in the first place. And hydrogenated oil??? Um, I got nothing, but weren’t people wanting cars that run on hydrogen, and you would still need a oil based (for now) lubricant for the engine parts…so wouldn’t that be hydrogenated oil???? (okay I’m stretching now!!!)

    As for cruising around in a patrol car amped up??? no, not like some dude on 20 red bulls in a day….I like it for the flavor, and given my tempered reaction to caffeine, it only provides me with the necessary energy to keep going on my schedule. I’m pretty laid back….but you take away my high fructose corn syrup, well…..you havent seen amped up yet!! LOL

  12. #12 by GEORGE on August 2, 2010 - 22:04

    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.— WHY WRITE THAT THAT’S 100% WRONG STATEMENT

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