Opening Havana

The American embargo on Cuba has outlived its usefulness and is now an outright failure. To get rid of the Castros, maybe we should open Cuba’s doors.

The policymaking guard is changing in Washington, but the newcomers are anything but new. Unfortunately, that will encourage policy continuity. One area which desperately needs genuine change, however, is Washington's strategy toward Cuba.

At recent public celebrations Havana's leaders sounded defiant, but nervous. Fifty years ago, they made a revolution, but merely replaced one dictatorship with another, turning their island into an impoverished prison. As in most communist states, the nomenklatura has prospered-the hard currency stores are filled with the sort of goods Americans take for granted-but opportunity is denied anyone lacking connections. When I visited Cuba (legally), Westerners were swarmed by Cubans desperate for dollars. "Are you looking for a nice restaurant?" "Where are you from?" And the ubiquitous: "My friend, would you like some cigars?" Even the most innocuous conversation ended with a Cuban pleading for cash to buy food for his family or milk for his children.

The regime survives only because of brute force. "Resistance has been the key word," declared Cuban President Raúl Castro as he denounced U.S. support for regime change. But he really meant resistance to the will of the Cuban people.

The big question today is whether the self-serving elite will survive the ravages of age. Fidel Castro, eighty-two, is ill and out of view. His seventy-seven-year-old brother Raúl now serves as president, but their generation will soon pass away. Regime acolytes and opposition activists alike are waiting with a mixture of expectation and trepidation.

How the revolutionary regime would have responded had Washington accepted its victory is impossible to predict. Castro & co. were no friends of liberty, but they might have chosen to accommodate the colossus next door. In any event, after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, imposition of the economic embargo in early 1962, and a superpower face-off later the same year, confrontation became a constant of American policy towards Havana.

One can argue that the embargo was worth a try when Cuba acted as a hostile outpost of America's hegemonic rival. But the cold war is over. Cuba is an irritant, not a threat. Its violations of human rights are little different than those committed by many other nations and Havana is not alone in expropriating foreign property. There is no principled reason to apply economic sanctions against Cuba and not a score of other countries.

Even more important, the embargo has failed. Cuba survived the cold war with the help of Soviet subsidies. When that aid disappeared along with the Soviet Union, the air was filled with predictions of the Castro regime's imminent collapse. But nothing happened. Cuba got poorer while tyranny lived on. Rather like North Korea, hardship only strengthened the Communist Party's hold on power. Venezuela's Hugo Chávez has been providing assistance as of late, though those funds might diminish with the drop in oil prices. Cuban President Raúl Castro warns of greater economic hardship in the wake of Hurricanes Gustav, Ike and Paloma, as well as falling export prices. But the regime seems unlikely to change.

Unwilling to accept failure, Washington usually responded by reinforcing the embargo. For instance, President Jimmy Carter allowed travel restrictions to lapse in 1977, but President Ronald Reagan reinstated the regulations five years later. Frustrated with Castro's continued survival, Congress further tightened the rules in 1992. Four years later Congress used the Helms-Burton Act to target the foreign companies doing business in Cuba. This extraordinary attempt at extraterritoriality triggered threats of retaliation from Europe (as a result, presidents routinely waive this provision). The Bush II administration cracked down on academic exchanges with and family visits to the island.

There may be no other foreign policy that has so consistently and obviously failed. The embargo has not ousted Castro & co., isolated the communist regime, or even prevented Washington's closest friends and allies from doing business with Havana.

However, U.S. sanctions have given the Cuban government an excuse for its own economic failure. When I met Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation-who had spent eight years in Castro's prisons-he complained that the "sanctions policy gives the government a good alibi to justify the failure of the totalitarian model in Cuba." Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, who then headed the U.S. interests section (America's quasi-embassy) in Havana, agreed: "Castro has found the embargo to be convenient to him," since he "uses it very effectively all the time, making us the Goliath and Cuba the David."

Huddleston pointed to another ill consequence of U.S. policy. Washington's high-profile campaign against Cuba turned Fidel Castro, the petty dictator of a small, poor and geopolitically irrelevant state, into the symbol of third world defiance of American and Western imperialism. Had the U.S. government ignored Cuba, people around the world would have found Castro to be a much less compelling figure.

These days Washington is alone-in November only Israel and Palau voted with the United States against a motion condemning the embargo in the UN General Assembly. Even many Cuban human rights activists, like Elizardo Sanchez, argue that the embargo has been counterproductive. If sanctions have not worked over nearly half a century, does anyone really believe they will achieve anything positive in the coming years?

In fact, the sanctions really are a political substitute for a serious policy, designed to appeal to one ethnic community in Florida. Until now, no presidential contender was willing to risk the votes of Cuban-Americans, who traditionally advocated tough policies towards Havana. However, younger Cuban-Americans are shifting towards engagement, and a majority of under-thirties voted for President-elect Obama-indeed, he would have won the presidency even without carrying Florida. Thus, he has a unique opportunity to adopt a new approach towards Cuba.

In barely two weeks, Barack Obama will become the eleventh president to deal with the Castros. During the campaign, he endorsed relaxing restrictions on travel and remittances, but said he supported the embargo-viewing it as "an important inducement to change" to be lifted once "freedom and justice" are achieved in Cuba. However, this is a prescription for stasis. No regime will negotiate itself out of power, embargo or not.

The new president and Congress should drop the sanctions, leaving Americans to travel to and conduct business with the island nation as they see fit. There should be no official aid-the U.S. government should not underwrite the failures of the regime whether in the name of commerce or humanitarianism. But let American tourists and businessmen become informal agents of subversion, naturally undermining the brutal and sclerotic regime.

Would lifting the embargo lead to economic and political reform? There are no guarantees. Raúl may be more pragmatic than Fidel, but he seems no less dedicated to maintaining Communist Party control. However, the embargo has had nearly five decades to displace the new communist oligarchy and has failed to do so. Maintaining the status quo will only benefit existing elites. Engagement offers the possibility of positive change.

Policy towards Cuba may seem like a minor issue given President-elect Obama's full foreign-policy agenda. But he has a unique opportunity to redirect U.S. strategy. The embargo has failed in all of its manifestations. Its support is waning, even in Florida, which the president-elect didn't need to win the presidency. He should act quickly after taking office; then the controversy will fade long before 2012, when engagement will have become the new status quo. Moreover, by then the cracks which we already see in Cuba's communist wall may have widened, allowing the Cuban people to finally enter a freer and more prosperous era. That would be change in which we all could believe.


Doug Bandow is the Robert A. Taft Fellow at the American Conservative Defense Alliance. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America's New Global Empire (Xulon).