Paul Pillar

Raul's Proposal

Last week Cuban president Raul Castro used a Revolution Day ceremony as the occasion for making seemingly impromptu remarks in which he offered to talk out all of his country's differences with the United States. Everything would be on the table, said Castro, including issues of political and human rights in Cuba, as long as the discussions were “between equals” and Cuba was free to bring up any of its grievances against the United States. “If they want to talk, we will talk,” he said, adding that the same message had already been conveyed through diplomatic channels. A spokesman for the State Department rejected the proposal, saying essentially that Cuba would first have to implement democratic reforms and improve human rights before there would be engagement. The spokesman also mentioned the case of Alan Gross, an American imprisoned in Cuba on charges of illegally importing communication gear while on a U.S.-funded democracy-building program.

The internal politics of the United States, not those of Cuba, are what makes any change in the U.S. posture extremely unlikely in the near term—especially in an election year in which Florida is once again a swing state. But at least after the election is over, U.S. policy makers ought to look carefully at the multiple upsides and lack of any significant downside to taking up Raul on his offer. Engagement does not imply endorsement, the United States usefully engages with regimes whose records on democracy and human rights are at least as bad as Cuba's, and the Gross case is only one of the more recent developments in a piece of Cold War ostracism that has now lasted half a century. Even the internal political consideration has been diluted as the older Cuban exile generation, which has always been the most fervently opposed to any dealing with a regime led by a Castro, has been growing older and dying off.

Sometime this fall, the United Nations General Assembly will for the twenty-first consecutive year consider and pass overwhelmingly a resolution denouncing the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Last year's resolution passed with 186 votes in favor, two opposed (the United States and Israel), and three abstentions (the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau). In some previous years the Marshall Islands and Palau had voted against, before shifting to abstentions. The only other countries that—going back to the 1990s—had ever voted against the resolution were Albania, Paraguay and Uzbekistan. The condemnation of nearly the entire world community is one of the obvious downsides of the persistent U.S. attempt to isolate Cuba. The hypocrisy and inconsistency that becomes apparent when one compares U.S. policy toward Cuba with U.S. policy toward many other deeply flawed regimes is part of what the world community notices. It also notices how this unsuccessful U.S. policy serves only to make Cubans poorer. The biggest monetary losses may actually be suffered by U.S business. What little relaxation of the trade embargo has occurred in recent years has been in response to pressure from U.S. business, especially agribusiness. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce estimates that the embargo still costs the U.S. economy $1.2 billion annually; other estimates are significantly higher than that. In return for these costs, the trade embargo and the associated political ostracism have accomplished absolutely nothing in the way of political change inside Cuba. If half a century is not long enough to demonstrate the futility of the policy, how much longer will it take?

Getting beyond the Cold War is a theme often voiced in appeals to change or reform certain operations of the U.S. government. Policy on Cuba may be the hoariest Cold War relic still found in Washington.

Image: Roosewelt Pinheiro/ABr