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Cuba: Wait, Wait, Let Me Guess What Comes Next

February 13, 2014

by Christopher Sabatini

I’m not a betting man, but if I were, this is what I’d bet.  With a series of statements by leading Cuban-Americans, stories of change inside the island, and growing public pressure and attention to liberalize the U.S. embargo toward Cuba, I’d wager that soon the Cuban government will do something to halt the process.

Further, I’d wager that when it does, hardliners in Congress and the dwindling number of groups that advocate for the embargo will react predictably: denouncing those who argued for more freedom in the restrictions as naïve, and insisting that now is not the time to open up—that in fact, now is the time to close down even those small, but effective, openings that have already been made.

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Why do I think this?  Because this has been the pattern for decades, whether it was the regime’s crackdown on the broad-based alliance of democratic activists, Concilio Cubano, in February 1996, in the tragic shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes that same year, or the arrest of USAID contractor Alan Gross in 2009. 

In each of these cases, talk of easing the embargo had grown just before the act of aggression by the Cuban government. And in each case, hardliners responded to ensure that the Cuban government got what it needs—isolation. 

The shootdown of the Brothers to the Rescue planes occurred as conservatives in Congress, afraid that then-President Bill Clinton would loosen the embargo, sought to codify it into law. Shortly after Cuban MiG 29UBs shot the two planes down—killing four pilots—President Clinton signed the Helms Burton or Libertad Act, effectively making the embargo law and setting out a specific set of conditions (such as release of political prisoners, credible steps toward free and fair elections, and freedom of association) that had to be met for the president to ask Congress to lift the embargo.  (The president actually has some latitude in changing regulations under the embargo without Congressional approval, but that’s another story.) 

Then there was the arrest of Mr. Gross.  Not coincidentally, that came amid growing talk that President Barack Obama would seek to change the embargo. (Hmmm...coincidence?)

The timing of each of these acts should make everyone wonder whether the Cuban government really wants to see a loosening of the embargo.  And why would they?  The Castro brothers have survived in large part not in spite of—but because of—their people’s isolation from U.S. contact, information, communication, and the corrupting influence of commerce for over a half-century. 

Moreover, the embargo has given the Castros a handy excuse for the economic disaster that 50 years of socialism have brought to the country—including shortages, deteriorating infrastructure, declining standards of living, and a national economy only kept afloat by Venezuelan petro-largesse. 

Sure, other countries have trade, travel and investment on the island, and those connections haven’t provoked serious change. But those countries aren’t just 90 miles off the coast of Cuba, nor do they have 1 million former Cubans—most of them just off the coast—nor do they enjoy the same level of connection and affinity with Cubans on the island.  (Just travel to Cuba and you’ll find, far from the angry, anti-yanqui posturing of the Castros and high-level government officials, people who admire, appreciate and indeed feel connected to the giant to their north.) 

In each instance, Cuban-Americans have predictably reacted to Castro government provocations with the same anachronistic, illogical answers.  Rather than what the regime appears to have been avoiding, hardliners have argued for more of the same policy that has failed to produce any meaningful opening inside Cuban society, or any change in the behavior of the government or loosening of the Castros’ grip on power—not just for one or two years, but for half a century! 

Fidel Castro—the master tactician—knows that.  And he and his brother have long played those reactions to secure their own and their government’s survival. And they likely will again. 

After all, why wouldn’t they?  

Today, the drum beat for greater liberalization of U.S. policy is growing louder, much of it because of the successes of the Obama administration’s earlier reforms.  In contrast to the Bush administration’s policy of tightening the embargo by limiting Cuban-Americans’ travel and remittances to the island and ending people-to-people contact—for which the only success was the most brutal crackdown in the regime’s recent history, the Black Spring of 2003, in which 75 democracy activists were jailed—the Obama administration has allowed Cuban-Americans to send money and travel to the island without limits and allowed U.S. citizens to go to the island for purposeful travel related to education and culture. 

The result has been a fostering of small, independent economic space on the island, evidenced by the over 400,000 non-state enterprises—restaurants, repair shops, taxis, contractors—that now exist in Cuba. While not much yet, that’s a level of independence that never existed before.  

The Cuban government continues to repress human rights and democracy activists, recently detaining scores of dissidents during the Comunidad de Estados Latinoamericanos y Caribeños (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States—CELAC) meeting in Havana last week.   But as Tim Padgett writes cogently, that’s exactly why we should be providing more freedom for U.S. citizens and organizations to have contact with the island—to promote change that has eluded Cuban citizens for over five decades, while sealed under an embargo that benefitted the very leaders it was supposed to hurt.

The question this time, though, is not whether the Cuban government will respond with its usual brutish behavior to prevent a policy change in the U.S.—it is who will listen to its partners, who will demand that we go backwards? 

Because, as the recent past has shown, what the Castro government fears most is contact with its northern neighbors that it can’t control, and it will do anything it can to prevent it. 

Unfortunately, hardliners have for too long been a predictable partner in this stale dance.  It’s enough to make you wonder sometimes who those that will inevitably argue for turning back policy and further isolating Cuba are—wittingly or unwittingly—working for.

*Christopher Sabatini is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. His Twitter account is @ChrisSabatini

Tags: Cuba, Cuba-U.S. relations, Cuban Embargo, Castro brothers

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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