President Obama’s historic opening to Cuba has come under fire from Republican and even some Democratic hawks because Cuban President Raul Castro did not greet him at the airport and because the Cuban government arrested members of a dissident group while Obama’s plane was en route to the island. Those Cuban actions are a reflexive reaction because Obama’s visit is the biggest threat to communist rule there in decades.
The Cuban people likely would have thrown the Castro brothers out of power long ago if previous U.S. presidents had done what Obama is now doing. US hostility to Cuba has allowed the Castros to blame their external nemesis to the north for the abysmally backward state of their country caused by their own failed economic and social policies. Now, the Castros’ policies will need to stand on their own merit – or lack thereof – because they won’t have the United States to rhetorically kick around anymore.
Grandiose expectations by the American media and Obama’s Republican opponents about a rapid liberalization of the Cuban political and economic system as a trade for the US opening are as misplaced as they are arrogant. Yes Cuban human rights policies are abhorrent, yes the communist economic system oppresses and impoverishes Cubans unnecessarily, and yes the United States should keep an eye on the fate of Cuban dissidents and protest any mistreatment or injustice. However, continuing the harsh economic embargo in the hopes of remaking the country in the American image has proven a folly for more than a half century. Given the survival of the Castro regime through eleven US presidential administrations and their futile grinding economic sanctions and failed attempts to either overthrow or assassinate Fidel Castro, is it a wonder that Cuba has genuine concerns about its sovereignty? Maybe its time, as Obama said, to try something completely different.
Cuba’s state-run economy is in such bad shape that the regime is feebly examining the partial liberalization – looking to the model of the communist countries of China and Vietnam. Yet, Raul Castro’s reforms have been minimal and halting, cautious to avoid ending up like the now defunct Soviet Union. Western experts on the Soviet Union during the Cold War correctly predicted that if the Soviets tried to introduce political and economic reforms, the entire system would collapse. Cuba wants to avoid this fate. On the other hand, China and Vietnam – to alleviate public pressure to relax their authoritarian political systems – at least for some time have bought their populations off with rapid economic growth. However, when authoritarian countries become wealthier through such economic reforms – for example, Chile, Taiwan, South Korea, etc. – they tend to develop a middle class that can begin to demand political reforms too. There is no guarantee, but it can happen – and that’s what the Castros are scared off. A greater opening of Cuba to the outside world scares the Castros more than anything else, because more international economic connections, which the Cuban economy desperately needs to right the ship, also bring in dangerous new ideas and thus pressures for political change.
Although Obama’s normalization of relations with Cuba might never cause the country to become a flowering free market democracy, that outcome should not be the goal. That eventuality would be fantastic, but perhaps the United States should be less arrogant about remodeling countries to its liking through coercive policies – it has worked in only four attempts in 18 tries since 1900; recent failures include fiascoes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. And similar policies are also failing in Pakistan, Yemen, Syria, and Somalia. Intimidating policies against Cuba have already failed for more than 50 years. Obama’s opening is the right policy, if only because the United States should try to get along – without needing to love – its neighbors. Thus, there is something to Rodney King’s famous quote, “Why can’t we all get along?”