As Castro Rule Fades in Cuba, Americans Should Engage the Cuban People

The Castro brothers ruled Cuba for more than six decades. The results have not been pretty. An island impoverished in body and mind. Even artists have been protesting of late, punished by the security forces for having the temerity to question the communist authorities.

However, change is in the offing. Fidel died in 2016. A petty tyrant compared to the 20th Century’s murderous triad of Hitler-Mao-Stalin, he still oppressed millions. Raul, longtime defense minister before succeeding his brother as president and communist party head, quit the former three years ago and resigned the latter last week. Although his children are influential, they will not succeed him. Cuba will no longer belong politically to the Castro family. He said he would turn power over to younger officials "full of passion and anti-imperialist spirit," meaning willing to continue holding the Cuban people in brutal bondage.

The reality of communist rule has been dismissed by many on the Left ever since the Castros took control. Some self-styled progressives still wax lyrical about Cuban communism, energized by Fidel Castro’s well-publicized Cold War resistance to U.S. pressure.

His legions arrived in Havana on New Year’s Day in 1959 promising to liberate the people. However, the soon-to-be global celebrity turned his country into an open-air prison and little has changed decades later. For instance, Freedom House rates Cuba as Not Free, scoring just 13 out of 100. On political rights the island scores a pitiful 1 out of 40, along with Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, Yemen, Libya, and Somalia.

Explained Freedom House: "Cuba’s one-party communist state outlaws political pluralism, bans independent media, suppresses dissent, and severely restricts basic civil liberties. The government continues to dominate the economy despite recent reforms that permit some private-sector activity. The regime’s undemocratic character has not changed despite a generational transition in political leadership between 2018 and 2019 that included the introduction of a new constitution."

Human Rights Watch came to a similar judgment: "The Cuban government represses and punishes dissent and public criticism. Tactics against critics include beatings, public shaming, travel restrictions, short-term detention, fines, online harassment, surveillance, and termination of employment. In October 2019, Miguel Diaz-Canel was confirmed as president of Cuba, with nearly 97 percent of the votes of National Assembly members. His presidency has seen little change in the government’s human rights policy. Arbitrary detention and harassment of critics continue. Under his government, Cuba has used Decree-Law 370/2018, which came into effect in July 2019 and severely limits free speech, to detain, fine, and harass critics."

Victims of Castroite repression include intellectuals. The regime even targets artists, at least those who fail to praise their oppressors. Art in service of the totalitarian state – the famed "socialist realism" of the Soviet Union – was always the true communist ideal. Art reached its apogee as oppression beautified during China’s Cultural Revolution, with depictions of a benevolent, even cherubic Mao Zedong presiding over adoring crowds of besotted revolutionaries as a veritable civil war raged on streets and in communities across the land.

Adoring artists of the Castros have been few of late. Last year, reported Reuters, featured a "crackdown on the San Isidro Movement of dissident artists and activists … that formed two years ago to protest curbs on freedom of expression, often through irreverent performances. The situation came to a head after authorities besieged the movement’s headquarters in Old Havana’s San Isidro district [and] then … broke up a hunger strike there that had started to gain international attention. Security forces forcibly removed and briefly detained the five members on hunger strike and nine other people in the house, citing violations of coronavirus protocols."

This crackdown in turn spurred 300 artists to protest outside the cultural ministry. Officials initially met with demonstrators, generating hope of an ongoing dialogue, but Diaz-Canel, Raul Castro’s successor who some in the West hoped would liberalize the system, denounced the artists for "an imperialist show" which he blamed on the Trump administration. Luis Manuel Otero, one of the San Isidro Movement’s founders, is under house arrest. He observed: "People are more and more miserable, more and more hungry, more and more desperate." So much for younger apparatchiks being different than their predecessors. Cuban communism kills fewer people than did its Soviet and Chinese counterparts, but equally murders people’s spirits.

The Castros did no better with the economy but predictably blamed the US However, if socialism is so wonderful, a system designed to cause the best of humanity to serve one another, people contributing according to their ability and receiving according to their needs, then American economic policy should be irrelevant. Cuba should be leading the world toward a new utopia after 62 years of selfless communist economic management. Instead, food rations go unfulfilled while communist politicos seek foreign investment to hide their failure.

During the Cold War Cuba was both a humanitarian and security challenge. However, Washington didn’t worry much about human rights then, being happy to work with most anyone who was willing to resist communist revolutionaries. Such was America’s dalliance with Fulgencio Batista, the dictator ousted by the Castro brothers. And with a multitude of other authoritarian regimes across the region and well beyond. Had the Castros aligned themselves with the US rather than Moscow, American advisers with pockets full of cash would have immediately embarked for the island.

However, the alliance with the Soviet Union, which led to the Cuban Missile Crisis, offered a security justification for the embargo, imposed in 1960. Human rights activists on the island complained that the regime used the embargo as an excuse for its failure. But the Castros’ survival only caused Washington to tighten economic sanctions, with no greater effect.

Moscow kept the Castros afloat as they yet again proved that the quickest way to destroy an economy was to socialize it. The U.S.S.R.’s collapse at the end of 1991 ended both the embargo’s justification and Soviet Union’s lifeline. Cuba ended up just a small, pitiful impoverished dictatorship fronted by a loquacious public showman so insecure that he imprisoned critics for years, even decades. The Cuban economy contracted by more than a third. The regime euphemistically termed that time as the "Special Period."

Washington should have responded by highlighting the alternative of freedom. Flood the island with Americans, especially those with family there. Send forth America’s best ambassadors, common folks who would share experiences and ideas. Such engagement wouldn’t directly overturn brutal Cuban state power, of course, but would be naturally subversive, undermining the regime’s very foundations. Unfortunately, Washington did the opposite, intensifying its attempt to starve the Cuban people into revolt.

The Castro regime staggered on. All the while remaining a global symbol of resistance to US dominance. The more tightly Washington, in the service of the hardline Cuban-American community in Florida – no president wanted to risk losing that state’s electoral votes, no matter how counterproductive the policy – squeezed Havana, the harsher the Castros treated their domestic critics.

Economic desperation forced the regime to turn to the market, however, allowing people to work privately. Access to foreign currency became a particularly prized opportunity. I met engineers who drove pedicabs and doctors who washed dishes. Families were allowed to open small businesses. "Capitalism," with the hiring of outside employees, was not allowed, yet an amazing number of distant and long-lost "cousins" showed up seeking jobs. Over time more elaborate enterprises were allowed, generating around 40 percent of the economy’s jobs. Unsurprisingly, observed American University’s William LeoGrande, "among ordinary Cubans, the desire for a better relationship with the United States is almost universal."

In contrast, the regime was frustrated by success. It complained of entrepreneurs running too many businesses, avoiding taxes, and, perhaps worst of all, undermining Cuba’s socialist ethos, which sought to spread hardship as completely and widely as possible. The authorities also worried about losing control to an ever larger and prosperous private sector. Although there was no evidence that the communist system was about to collapse, popular dissatisfaction was rife. A retired diplomat told me that three of his four grandchildren left the country to seek work. Almost everyone recognized that the Castros had failed their people.

After being reelected President Barack Obama addressed Cuba. He relaxed controls, though his discretion was limited by statute. Much of Cuba’s population turned out to see him when he visited in 2016. Decals with his photo still abounded on cars when I was there the following year. Raul’s regime – Fidel having retired and only a few months away from death – felt threatened by Obama’s presence. Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez criticized Obama’s "deep attack on our ideas, our history, our culture and our symbols." The authorities "completely underestimated his popularity," a Western journalist stationed in Cuba told me: "Obama’s visit was tremendously challenging, like Kryptonite."

The best way to further discomfit the regime would have been to expand the economic opening. Collin Laverty of Cuba Educational Travel, who arranged my 2017 trip, observed: "If you want to create more space for debate, expanding the entrepreneurial class is one way." By creating not just more business owners, but more people employed by private firms.

Instead, President Donald Trump reversed Obama’s limited opening to the island. Citing human rights violations of the sort that Trump ignored, and sometimes even seemed to celebrate, in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and elsewhere, he imposed new restrictions on investment in and travel to the island. He was urged on by faux friends of freedom, such as Marco Rubio, who has never visited the island and refused to even meet with Cuban entrepreneurs brought to the US by the State Department. Rubio’s priority, like so many other politicians who pontificate on the issue, was to win votes in America, not liberate people in Cuba.

Trump’s policy worked no better than his economic wars against Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Venezuela. As Secretary of State Mike Pompeo strutted about the globe pompously celebrating his "swagger," governments uniformly rejected his demands. In not one case did sanctions force an antagonistic regime to surrender, contra the administration’s predictions. The campaign proved to be an embarrassing and almost total failure. The Trump administration gave new evidence for the classic definition of insanity: constantly repeating something while expecting different results.

Cubans with whom I met – owners of restaurants, Airbnbs, taxi services, and other small businesses – were frustrated that US politicians, including Cuban-Americans like Rubio, would put their political ambitions before the Cuban people’s future. These people invested in expectation of more American tourists and found the US government against them. Julia de la Rosa, who owned an Airbnb, noted that "So many people opened businesses for American tourists," but after Trump’s action "there is little demand."

So far, the Biden administration has done nothing to reverse Trump’s counterproductive strategy. Of course, the president has been in office only three months and has much on his policy plate. Nevertheless, the decision should be easy. Today, lift every Trump sanction imposed over the last four years. Tomorrow, create a working group to explore the president’s authority to lift more restrictions. The day after, propose legislation ending all sanctions on the island.

The Cuban people deserved liberation in 1959. Alas, the Castro brothers brought even worse oppression and poverty. The Cuban people almost certainly would have been better off today if the old regime had survived, eventually evolving into something more liberal, open, and productive.

Unfortunately, the past cannot be relived, leaving the present dominated by poverty and tyranny. Shortly before taking over the presidency Diaz-Canel offered his depressing vision: "I think there always will be continuity." However, Castro’s retirement reduces the regime’s revolutionary legitimacy and increases pressure for meaningful generational change. Diaz-Canel must respond to popular demands for change or risk eventually being swept aside. Baruch College’s Ted Henken opined that Diaz-Canel "was selected by the old guard to maintain continuity and control, but to have any legitimacy with most ordinary Cubans, he urgently needs to introduce fundamental reforms to halt a collapsing economy and address growing social and political unrest."

Washington should further improve the prospects for fundamental change by ending its decrepit and failed embargo plus additional sanctions. That wouldn’t guarantee Cuba’s freedom overnight. But Cubans with whom I spoke wanted US to stop making their lives tougher. "They are hurting us," De la Rosa complained of Washington. The Cuban people see increased economic opportunities as their best hope. Insisted one: "We need the Americans back."

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.