President-Elect Biden Should Reset Relations with Cuba

For someone so disparaging of "losers" President Donald Trump certainly has a lot of losing policies. His reliance on sanctions to inflict "maximum pressure" has failed everywhere. Yet the administration continues to double down on this losing policy, applying ever more economic pressure no matter how bad the result.

The incoming Biden administration should reverse these Trump failures. A good place to start would be Cuba. If a policy doesn’t work after 60 years, it’s probably time to accept reality and change course. Unless you are a conservative Republican hoping to win Florida’s electoral votes. Then you don’t care how many people you hurt while you callously impoverish the Cuban people to bolster your political ambitions.

The 1959 revolution brought Fidel Castro to power. When his regime allied with the Soviet Union, Washington imposed an economic embargo. That might have made sense as a Cold War measure, but after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the U.S.S.R. Cuba lost its security significance. The Soviet collapse also left Castro’s workers’ paradise without subsidies: the economy shrunk by more than a third in what was called the "Special Period."

Even then, the regime did not fall, as predicted by Cuban-American activists, so Washington piled sanctions higher and deeper. As expected, average Cubans suffered the most. Still the regime didn’t fold. So much for the promise from embargo advocates that just a little more pressure would defenestrate Castro & Co., improve human rights, restore exiles’ property, bring democracy, and trigger all manner of other good and wondrous events.

Ironically, by hurting the Cuban people the administration caused the communists to liberalize economically. U.S. policy obviously exacerbated the underlying economic failure caused by the socialist system. When I first visited in 2003 Cubans showed me their ration books, the corner bodega where they shopped, and what little ended up in their refrigerators. The disastrous consequences of Havana’s collectivist policies were obvious to all. During my 2017 trip I spoke with a retired diplomat who said three of his four grandchildren lived abroad, a common experience.

Dissidents complained that the embargo allowed the regime to blame Washington for the island’s economic troubles. Still, the stagnant economy posed a serious challenge to the Cuban Communist Party. After Castro turned authority over to his brother Raoul Havana began to loosen controls.

Private restaurants and tourist services mushroomed. In the increasingly nonsocialist economy the private sector came to provide around 40 percent of jobs. And access to hard currency – real money from foreigners – made even public employees desperate for private employment. On my first trip I talked with an engineer manning a pedicab. On my second visit I met an anesthesiologist washing dishes in his spare time.

However, some CCP elites saw the expanding private economy as their chief problem. They felt power slipping away as entrepreneurs amassed business licenses, created companies, and avoided taxes. Regime factotums used constitutional reform to re-restrict private operations. Writer Caroline Kuritzkes pointed to "a more adversarial approach to nonstate enterprise that the Cuban Communist Party has adopted the last two years, after almost a decade of private-sector development."

However, that didn’t end well. The Economist reported in October: "Long queues and empty shelves are old news in Cuba. Recently, though, the queues have become longer and the shelves emptier. Food is scarcer than it has been since the collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union." Thus, the government reversed economic direction again. For instance, Havana recently lifted unpopular rules limiting the number of business licenses per entrepreneur and the number of seats per restaurant. The regime also is considering proposals to combine its two currencies, one market and the other political.

Nevertheless, the communists kept an iron grip on politics. There is room to advocate for improved services and better policies, but criticism of authoritarian rule remains verboten. Nevertheless, information now flows more freely. On my first trip the internet was restricted to foreigners. Today it is open, though expensive. I logged in at my Airbnb, a private apartment.

And people continue to press for more freedom. Ted Henken and Armando Chaguaceda, of Baruch College and the Universidad de Guanajuato, respectively, wrote: "a variety of actors in Cuban society – including political dissidents, independent digital journalists and the island’s innovative entrepreneurs – have staked increasingly bold claims to the public spaces that have emerged in recent years as a result of Havana’s limited economic reforms."

Even artists in Cuba, in contrast to those in the West, demand freedom rather than celebrate Communist rule. The regime recently detained more than a dozen members of the San Isidro Movement, an artists’ collective, several of whom were staging a hunger strike. That triggered a demonstration by several hundred artists against the culture ministry – which must approve any artistic exhibition – demanding greater freedom. A Cuban-American artist, Coco Fusco, observed: "I cannot emphasize enough that this kind of public protest, with hundreds of people standing outside a ministry for 14 hours, is unprecedented." The government agreed to a meeting and dialogue, but then Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who succeeded the Castros, denounced the demonstrators. Once a commie thug, always a commie thug, it seems.

What should the US do? Despite the fantasies of Washington politicians, the 60-year embargo and follow-on sanctions have not forced the CCP, still headed by the otherwise retired Raoul Castro, to give any ground to the people in whose name it claims to rule. If anything, increased US pressure has made the regime more obdurate.

President Barack Obama became the first chief executive to move in the opposite direction. He put principle and practice before politics, but only after he was reelected. He enhanced diplomatic relations, permitted more visitors, and allowed additional investment and trade. He also visited Cuba in 2014.

The response was dramatic. More Americans came to the island; Cuban entrepreneurs expanded operations; additional jobs and power shifted to the private sector; Cubans longed for improved relations with the US; CCP apparatchiks looked on in horror at what just a little bit of freedom loosed.

The regime still maintained a monopoly on force. However, it could not control what the Cuban people thought or desired. Collin Laverty, who runs Cuba Educational Travel, arranged my 2017 trip and observed: "If you want to create more space for debate, expanding the entrepreneurial class is one way." Putting money into the hands of people predisposed to freedom naturally expanded their influence and reduced the regime’s clout. Moreover, surveys reported that American tourists commonly engage those they encounter about politics as well as other topics. There is nothing more dangerous to Cuban Communist rule than the spread of the seditious desire for liberty and autonomy.

Unsurprisingly, then, government officials complained about Obama and punished their critics. "Obama’s visit was tremendously challenging, like Kryptonite," for the regime, an American journalist on the island told me: "They completely underestimated his popularity." When I visited numerous Cubans spoke warmly of Obama and his trip three years before. I saw several cars that displayed weathered stickers with his photo. There were none of Donald Trump.

For good reason. Shortly after taking office the latter sacrificed the Cuban people for his political benefit, partially closing the window opened by Obama. He imposed new and complicated restrictions on both business investment and personal visits. The Engage Cuba Coalition complained that the administration created a "more convoluted, confusing and counterproductive approach." Trump later allowed Americans to sue foreign firms using decades-old nationalized assets and further limited island visits. Last month he imposed new restrictions on financial remittances and other economic activities.

Ironically, these actions put Trump on the same side as Raoul Castro. Noted Kuritzkes: "Entrepreneurs are facing a two-front attack from a US executive branch resistant to commercial and travel ties to the island, and from Cuban officials who have come to perceive the country’s small businesses less as partners in Cuba’s opening than as competition to state-owned firms."

In the aftermath of Trump’s renewed sanctions, revenues for private lodgings and restaurants and lodgings were estimated to have fallen more than 40 percent. Which devastated many business operators who had expanded to meet new demand. Airbnb owner Julia de la Rosa told me: "So many people opened businesses for American tourists. Now there is little demand." What a smart strategy: target the people who have the greatest affinity for America! Kuritzkes observed that "Small-business owners are finding it increasingly difficult to withstand government-led opposition to private-sector activity." Yet the US government added to the difficulty.

No doubt, Trump wasn’t even aware of such people, and wouldn’t care about them if he did know. Similarly, Cuban entrepreneurs complained that Marco Rubio, one of the chief Cuba hawks, has never visited the island and refused to meet with them when they came to Washington courtesy the US government. Like most sanctions aficionados, he cares about politics, not the Cuban people. An obviously frustrated restaurateur Niruys Higueras said she wished "to make him understand how much damage he is causing the private sector." Alas, there is no reason to believe that would matter to him.

Trump set impossible conditions for ending his economic war: Havana’s surrender. Said the president: "We will not lift sanctions on the Cuban regime until all political prisoners are freed, freedoms of assembly and expression are respected, all political parties are legalized, and free and internationally supervised elections are scheduled." He should have included the Second Coming and lion lying down with the lamb, which are equally likely.

The president’s objectives obviously are desirable, but it should be obvious after decades of trying that authoritarian regimes, whether right or left, do not dismantle themselves on demand by America. The assumption that Washington can use economic war to impose regime change ignores six decades of experience. The Cuban Communists survived the Cold War and the USSR’s collapse and extreme economic hardship. So far embargo-related dissatisfaction has generated no serious resistance to Communist rule. Indeed, targeting the regime encourages loyalists to stand firmer. Laverty warned: "US hostility leads to an under-siege mentality in Cuba, limiting space for debate and calls for change."

A change in Washington’s policy is desperately needed. Biden’s election provides hope. He appears ready to shift back toward Obama-style openness, though some of his aides have indicated the specifics depend on the government’s behavior, which is a prescription for doing nothing. He should sell change to Cuban-Americans by emphasizing issues that affect them, such as restrictions on remittances and travel, and highlighting his desire to expand and strengthen Cuban communities outside of government control. However, Biden’s primary advantage is the likelihood that he will step down after just one term. If so, he need not court Cuban-American dead-enders, who are prepared to impoverish every Cuban in an attempt to overthrow the regime, in hopes of carrying Florida in 2024. They are diminishing in number as younger generations, who seek greater contact with the island, move to the fore.

Biden should use his full authority to lift sanctions however and whenever possible. While a Republican Senate likely would block efforts to end or moderate statutory penalties, the Democratic House and his veto can prevent any return to Trump’s failed policy. Just reinstating the Obama rules would be a major improvement.

Ultimately Washington should lift all sanctions. Every Cuban I spoke with desired greater contact with and business from the US"We need the Americans back," said one. Fully open the economic window and the regime would have to confront its debilitating failure in the face of extraordinary opportunity. The more American money and people going to the island, the better. Only the Cuban people can free themselves, but Washington could make it easier for them to do so.

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Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.