The Cuban Embargo: A Debate of Ideology, Less of Strategy


Español As Poland struggled to establish a democratic government, more than 100 political parties competed for personal and political power. Lech Walesa humorously captured the situation by commenting, “When two Poles get together, three political parties emerge.” That proportional proliferation of political ideas is about the same for Cubans when discussing how to bring about a change in Cuba’s polity. US foreign policy towards Cuba — specifically the US embargo — is often the cornerstone of this debate.

Thematically, but unfortunately not qualitatively, the disagreement over the embargo is not unlike the great debates on political philosophy surrounding the American and French Revolutions, exemplarily carried out by Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. The Burke-Paine dispute is richly explored by Yuval Levin in his book The Great Debate.

Both Burke and Paine were men of ideas and of action. Burke was a devoted defender of the inherited traditions of the English constitution who argued brilliantly for a patient and gradual reform of his country’s institutions. In contrast, Paine fervently believed in the potential of Enlightenment liberalism to advance the cause of justice by uprooting corrupt and oppressive regimes and replacing them with governments answerable to the people. As Levin brings out in his book, “Each voiced a worldview deeply at odds with the other over some of the most important questions of liberal-democratic political thought.”

Up until recently, I have always thought of the embargo debate as a disagreement over strategy — about differences over modes of political change. On the one side, there are those of us who, like Paine, believe that in order for Cuba to have a prosperous democratic future it is necessary to replace the oppressive regime with a government answerable to the people. On the other side are those who, like Burke, believe that patient and gradual reforms of the institutions of the communist regime is the best strategy to advance the well-being of the Cuban people.

Superficially, the embargo discussion may be a disagreement over tactics, but it is a dispute rooted more deeply in political-economic thought, illustrating that the Cuban diaspora is not one people in any meaningful political sense. To paraphrase Lech Walesa, when two Cubans get together three political visions for Cuba emerge.

As critics of the embargo correctly point out, this policy has failed to bring about a change in Cuba’s polity; this is not disputed. But critics, in an exercise in casuistry, never quite explain how their idea of a unilateral, unconditional elimination of US economic sanctions will succeed in bringing about such a change. Perhaps that is because a structural change in Cuba’s polity is not a goal they value highly.

Also not to be disputed is the fact that under a totalitarian system, where all economic activity is deemed to be at the service of the state, economic sanctions work to diminish the economic resources available to the regime. The US embargo has accomplished that. Thus, a unilateral, unconditional elimination of economic sanctions would inevitably enhance, to some degree, the economic wherewithal of the Cuban regime. Why support a change in policy that will strengthen a regime that oppresses your countrymen?

Apparently, my friends on the other side of this debate are not comprehensively repulsed by the collectivist policies of the Castro regime. This is not to suggest that they support the Castros or the repressive nature of that regime. I am sure they do not. But it does suggest that at some level, and in some measure, they are intellectually drawn to the pervasive use of the state’s coercive power by self-appointed wise men to drive society towards their preconceived idea of a just society. It suggests an ideological genuflection to Cuban collectivism.

Their political vision, like Burke’s, is pious, gradualist, and reformist. They are distrustful of a citizen’s relationship to his society that is defined by the individual right of free choice. They are willing to accept economic changes mandated by authoritarian rule without democratic reforms to empower the citizenry to freely choose their path. This is abhorrent to those of us that, like Paine, believe that the rights and freedoms of the individual must be the centerpiece of political life. I have now come to believe that, among Cubans, the embargo is just the ideological proxy for this more fundamental political debate.

This article first appeared in El Nuevo Herald.

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