The Autumn of the Patriarch

Thursday, April 17, 2008

In U.S.-Cuba relations, time stands still. Even Fidel Castro’s “retirement” in February has made no difference. President Bush maintains the determination stated last October to isolate Havana, pleading with the rest of the world to join the United States in an almost half-century-old embargo imposed on the Castro brothers and their cronies. For the sixteenth year in a row, the U.N. General Assembly responded with rejection, condemning U.S. policy by a vote of 184–4. Even now, despite the Castro resignation, Bush is unlikely in his final year in office to reverse the Cuba policy of ten consecutive U.S. presidents. Will the new president who takes office in January 2009 finally lift the United States out of this Cold War rut?

Much of Bush’s analysis of Cuba during his term of office has been correct. Cuba’s chronic and crippling economic conditions are primarily the result of economic and other decisions made over the decades by Cuba’s own leaders. The island suffers from a lack of elementary freedoms and an excess of human rights violations. To emphasize the last point, Bush was accompanied at his October speech by relatives of Cuban political prisoners. Some of his comments showed that he realized the need for reconciliation if Cuba is to enter a new era.

In the end, however, the president insisted that the embargo would continue until there is “fundamental change” in Cuba as measured by “freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom to form political parties, and the freedom to change the government through periodic, multiparty elections.” We too look forward to that day. But almost certainly it is not on the immediate horizon. It was no coincidence that immediately after Bush’s talk Cuban foreign affairs minister Felipe Pérez Roque, known as the mouthpiece of official intransigence in Cuba, practically declared war against those on the island who are working for a peaceful transition to a market economy, democracy, and respect for human rights.

How much more productive it would be if Bush (or, soon, his successor) showed some grasp of the changes that have occurred on the island, not just Fidel Castro’s stepping aside but also those that have arisen after Raúl Castro’s first major policy speech, in which he signaled that internally defined change was in the works. In that address of July 26, 2007, Raúl Castro raised questions about Cuba’s fundamental, systemic problems. Some Cubans have proposed solutions that look to opening up the economy— if not yet the political system—as in China, Vietnam, and other countries after the end of the Cold War. Cuba’s problems are being blamed not only on “U.S. imperialism,” as so often in the past, but on failures within Cuba itself.

Bush is right that many Cubans, even in leadership positions, want major changes. But the choice for the years ahead is not simply between “the old way with new faces,” as Bush said, and immediate democracy, however much many of us would like to see that. Even though major new policies have yet to be implemented, the Cuban people’s expectations have been raised, and their leaders will have to satisfy those expectations through significant reforms.

How much better it would be if the United States at least removed restrictions on visits to Cuba and promoted increasing cultural, academic, and other exchanges, as some 2008 U.S. presidential hopefuls have proposed. And how much better to lift restrictions on remittances (money sent back to the island that improves the lives of a large part of the population), which go “directly into the hands of the Cuban people,” a goal that the president and some presidential hopefuls say they support.

In fact, it is hard to see current restrictions as anything but a disguised effort to make the Cuban people’s lives more miserable so they will rise up and try to overthrow the regime. Most U.S. embargo supporters say they are pressing only for peaceful change, but a few admit that given Cuba’s long intransigence and Washington’s demands for greater change than Cuban leaders will allow, U.S. policy is more nearly designed to precipitate a showdown. Realistically, however, such a showdown might backfire and bring greater rather than less repression, as one did five years ago; in early 2003, assertive U.S. pro-democracy policy led to the arrest of seventy-five Cuban journalists, librarians, and democratic advocates, among them the lead author of this article.

The irony is that the United States has built eminently flexible and constructive policies in recent decades toward Eastern Europe and Asia, encouraging once-totalitarian regimes to turn toward openness and the kinds of economic reforms that are increasingly likely in Cuba’s future. It is ridiculous to pretend that Vietnam, China, and particularly North Korea, nations with which Washington has increasingly better relations, have the freedom of press and political organization in support of the “periodic, multiparty elections” that alone will make Cuba acceptable to U.S. policy makers. Why is it good to work step by step in those countries but not in Cuba?

It’s hard to see current restrictions as anything but a disguised effort to make the Cuban people’s lives more miserable so they will rise up and try to overthrow the regime.

The real cause of Cuba’s national disaster is the blockade imposed on the Cuban people by their own government. But it is also true that U.S. restrictions on ties have made it much easier for totalitarianism to mask the national disaster, and to sell the false notion of Cuba as a fortress under siege and increasingly threatened by foreign attack. This climate enables the persecution of anyone who seeks to peacefully protest and change conditions— the very democratic movement the president so vocally supports. And as the U.N. vote demonstrates, the embargo further isolates the United States, to no purpose, from the rest of the world.

Thirty-six years ago, President Nixon visited Mao Zedong in Beijing to begin restoring U.S. relations with China—during the chaos and brutal repression of the Cultural Revolution, no less. President Bush has now had almost eight years to play that constructive and far-seeing role with respect to Cuba, but instead has played the reactionary. If Bush declines to follow Nixon’s China example in the last few months of his presidency, it remains for the next U.S. leader to demonstrate the wisdom and common sense it would take to abandon this destructive vestige of the Cold War.