When communism collapsed in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in 1990, Cuban-Americans, US companies, and tourists optimistically expected Cuba to be the next domino to fall. I became well known back then for telling everyone “not to pack their suitcases!”
The recent announcement by President Obama about a change in US-Cuba policy is generating similar optimism. Yet my warnings from the 1990s are still valid today.
There are four main reasons to tone down our expectations.
First, the Raul Castro military regime is not about to provide any major concessions to the United States. On the contrary, Castro remains a steadfast Stalinist, allied with Iran, Russia, North Korea, and Venezuela, and a supporter of terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and ETA. He is no Den Chao Ping, no reformist, and no believer in market reforms. For him and his octogenarian military allies, the way to preserve and transfer power to their selected heirs is by maintaining tight political control with no major political reforms in Cuba. Human-rights conditions will deteriorate rather than improve. It would be difficult for President Obama to justify further US concessions.
Second, the president faces strong opposition in Congress to any unilateral concessions to the Castro brothers. A unified and powerful coalition of Republican and Democrat legislators will thwart the president’s attempt to give too much and get little from the Castros. The abolition or modification of the Helms-Burton Law, which codifies the embargo, must be approved by Congress, a most unlikely event.
Third, the foreign policy challenges facing the president in 2015 and beyond will prevent his continuous attention on the Cuba issue. Relations with Russia; conflict with Iran; violence and instability in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; increasing tensions in the Korean Peninsula; and growth of worldwide and domestic terrorism will more than fill the president’s plate.
Finally, dismantling the embargo is a complex and slow process. The maze of laws, regulations and issues surrounding the Helms-Burton Law will require time, effort, and significant finesse.
For example, the issue of the Castro government’s confiscation of US and Cuban properties must be resolved before any real normalization. A cadre of sophisticated US and Cuban-American lawyers await the moment to collect on the judgments rendered by US Courts against the government of Cuba and/or to file new law suits to garnish the proceeds of any trade with Cuba and investments on the island. The issue of property confiscations is one of many thorny issues that need to be resolved before any real normalization.
For the time being the current US Interests Section in Havana may be upgraded into an embassy and several thousand more US Americans will visit Cuba. This will do little to improve the lives of the Cubans or to bring democracy to the island. For the past decade, several million tourists from Europe, Canada, and Latin America have visited Cuba, yet the island is no freer or prosperous. If we believe that US tourists can change Cuban society, we should send them to North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela.
At a time that the United States is sanctioning some of these countries, it is ironic that we are removing sanctions from Cuba. Engaging with a military dictatorship in Havana is an ill-advised policy that sends a message that the United States is willing to accept anew a militarism in Latin America that we have rejected for the past 40 years. Our new engagement with Cuba and our recent one with the military in Egypt send contradictory messages about US foreign policy and questions our commitment to human rights and freedom in the world.
Issue 227 of Focus on Cuba by the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies.