On Cuba, I Told You So
Español“I told you so” is a childish, inelegant expression unbecoming any thoughtful essayist. Forgive me, but that is what my heart screamed when reading General Castro’s demands for normalizing relations with the United States.
The general has upped the ante setting preconditions that the United States must: return the US base at Guantanamo Bay, lift all economic sanctions, and compensate his country for damages, in excess of US$116 billion taxpayer dollars. All this before the two nations can reestablish normal relations. In his view, “if these problems aren’t resolved, this diplomatic rapprochement wouldn’t make any sense.”
Last year, I wrote an article which I sought to make the point that those advocating for a unilateral, unconditional change in US-Cuba policy had failed to ask how Cuba would respond to such an overture. We now have the answer to that question.
I also anticipated in that article that Castro would demand compensation. Not a particularly dazzling exercise in clairvoyance since Cuba has presented its demands for reparations yearly to the United Nations for decades.
I noted then that not probing how Castro would respond was a curious omission since the formulation of US foreign policy is often compared to a chess game in which every prospective move is analyzed and weighted with an eye to what the adversary’s counter move would be. I argued that it was irresponsible to advocate for a policy change without offering, at least a theory of, what the other party would do. A foreign policy move seeks reciprocity.
Nonetheless, advocates of an unconditional change in US-Cuba policy succeeded in their quest, as evidenced by President Barack Obama’s December 17 announcement to seek normalization, and his State of the Union message urging Congress to unilaterally eliminate all economic sanctions. With that success, however, comes the duty of accepting responsibility for the outcomes of their advocacy and recommendations.
The often repeated rationale was that the sanctions policy had failed and a new approach was needed, but no thought was given as to what Cuba would do. Refusing to anticipate Cuba’s countermove, those responsible for this policy disaster shifted the debate. They argued instead that unilaterally ending economic sanctions would work to strengthen Cuba’s self-employed sector and, thus, foster a civil society more independent of the government. Eventually this more autonomous civil society would function as agents of change for democratic governance.
That argument is plausible, but flawed. In a totalitarian system, even those working in self-employed activities are beholden to the government for the very existence of their businesses in myriad bureaucratic ways. Self-employment success in a totalitarian setting does not confer independence from the government.
On the contrary, it makes the newly minted entrepreneurs more beholden to the government for continued operating permits and the like. Thus, success does not breed independence from the government but more dependence, as few are willing to risk their livelihood antagonizing their all-powerful patrons.
During the student protest in Tiananmen Square, China’s business community did not come out in support of the students. More recently we witnessed a similar situation in Hong Kong. Sadly, these business communities were not willing to jeopardize their positions and support the students promoting democratic change. Why would we think that a Cuban business community bound to an all powerful state for their very existence would act differently?
So what should happen now that Castro has summarily dismissed Obama’s overtures by setting onerous preconditions? If we are truly interested in promoting democracy in Cuba, the White House, the New York Times editorial board, and all those that have advocated unconditional concessions to the Castro regime, should acknowledge that they have misread the nature of the regime. Noblesse oblige; whoever claims to be noble must act nobly.
Most likely the spin machine will work overtime to develop all kinds of doctrinaire arguments, bordering on sophistry, as to why we should stay the new course, such as: General Castro is just laying out a starting negotiating position, or, we tried economic sanctions for half a century, should we not give this policy some time?
We may even begin to see arguments suggesting that Cuba may indeed be entitled to compensation and that the naval base in Guantanamo is an unnecessary, expensive relic of the Cold War.
Perhaps I should have written a different article titled, “What Would the President Do When General Castro Embarrasses His New Cuba Policy?”