Succeeding on the margin

Last week, Anita Snow, an AP reporter who spent ten years working in Havana, wrote a fantastic piece about returning to Cuba and how things are changing for average Cubans. The entire piece is great and worth reading. What really caught my attention, however, was how the Cubans she quoted spoke about the reforms of the last few years and the possibilities created by the recent rapprochement with the United States. All of them talk about the new economic opportunities open to them and how they think their lives can continue to improve. This stands in contrast to many opponents of the new policy position toward Cuba here in the United States as well as many prominent dissidents, who focus much more heavily on issues of political rights and democratic transition.

This is certainly not to say that those issues aren’t important. Cuba’s status as an open dictatorship with a completely closed political system remains a stain on the Americas, not least because so many prominent democratic politicians openly fawn over Fidel Castro and the Cuban Revolution. Nevertheless, I think it’s very likely that right now, most Cubans are far more concerned with the potential economic benefits of reform than they are about political ones. Moreover, helping generate a sustained improvement in the material living standards of Cubans is a much more achievable goal from the perspective of US policymakers than a democratic transition. The negative effects of the embargo on Cuba’s economy are probably overblown, but allowing US citizens and companies to travel, work and invest in Cuba will almost certainly be a net benefit for the Cuban economy, improving the livelihoods of Cubans. In contrast, the current arrangement is a net negative for the Cuban economy and Cuban livelihoods, yet also has done nothing to generate a political transition, or even superficial moves.

There a definite value to human rights activists and dissidents in Cuba fighting for a political opening above all else. And in a perfect world, Cuba would be well on its way there. However, treating that as the price of entry for Cuba to have economic and political relations with the United States makes perfect the enemy of good. Cubans end up poorer than they otherwise might be, and still stuck living in an oppressive dictatorship. US policy toward Cuba needs to be geared to improving the lives of Cubans within the current constraints, while working to bring about the eventual political opening.

¡Siempre hasta la victoria (del bloqueo)!

With former Senator Chuck Hagel’s nomination hearings for Secretary of Defense beginning today, I felt it might be interesting to look at what his views on the US military’s role in Latin America should be. Unfortunately, as far as I have read, no one has bothered to ask him anything about the surprisingly large role the US military plays there (I guess the Drug War isn’t that important?). In fact, the only bit on Hagel and Latin America that I have seen was this piece by Jennifer Rubin about his supposed weakness on the Castros. Since few things get me as fired up as the illogic of the Cuba embargo, I’m going to use this as an opportunity to go into a bit of detail about just how stupid it is.

Essentially, arguments in favor of continuing the embargo (or bloqueo, as it’s commonly known in Spanish) are that it dramatically weakens the Castros thereby increasingly the likelihood of a transition toward a democratic government and that it gives the US leverage in negotiations with Cuba. Conversely, they argue that lifting the embargo would strengthen the current government, weaken the US negotiating position, enrich the Castros with little benefit to the Cuban people and reward a violator of human rights and potential security threat to the US.

The problem with these arguments is that they bear little resemblance to objective reality. Simply put, if anything, the embargo strengthens the Castros far more than it weakens them. First, there is the obvious point that it’s difficult to argue for the efficacy of a policy that in more than 50 years has not led to a change in the Cuban government or even fomented a serious challenge to it. Cubans lack political rights, are getting poorer and there is almost no organized opposition to the regime. Even if one subscribes to the “any day now” philosophy of the embargo, there remains the fact that it serves as a potent propaganda tool for the regime, both domestically and internationally. Cuba’s economic woes are mainly the result of bad policy (believe it or not, planned economies are really, really inefficient), but the presence of the embargo allows the Castros to pin blame on something external and beyond their control. Si no fuera por el bloqueo works because many people, both inside and outside of Cuba, want to believe the model can work and because it plays on the strong current of anti-Americanism that runs throughout Latin America and is particularly (and justifiably) strong in Cuba. Whatever the Cuban government may say about the embargo, it benefits from its existence (even if the Cuban people suffer), so it hardly counts as leverage unless you really believe it’s about to topple the regime.

So would unilaterally ending the embargo strengthen the Castros further? It certainly might. It might also further enrich the ruling class as increased economic interaction with the US has in China and Vietnam (among a myriad of other things). Of course it could also make the lives of the average Cuban much better as well, as has happened in the aforementioned countries (and if the choices are oppressed and poor and oppressed and less poor, less poor is better, if not ideal). Furthermore, arguments in favor of maintaining the embargo because of Cuba’s human rights record or threat potential would hold up much better if not for the fact that we have robust trade relationships with countries with much worse records (China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia) and who are bigger security threats* (China, Pakistan).

So long as Cuba has the sympathy of almost the entire world, and especially while it has an oil-rich benefactor in Venezuela, the embargo will most benefit the people it supposed to hurt (the Cuban governing class) and hurt those its supposed to benefit (the Cuban people in general, US interests in Cuba, international perceptions of the US). Arguments in favor of continuing the embargo either ignore this or hold Cuba to a standard that we don’t hold some of our most important allies to in order to justify it.

*In my opinion, Cuba isn’t a real security threat, and only ever was because of its role as a Soviet satellite state during the Cold War. However, it remains on the list of state sponsors of terrorism so I’ll acknowledge that, officially, the US does regard Cuba as a security threat.