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The Worst of Times for Cuba and Her Exiles

By: José Azel - Aug 19, 2015, 9:16 am

EspañolIn A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens deploys one of the most exquisite opening sentences in English literature:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

With this beautiful anaphoric construction, Dickens highlights the anxiety surrounding the French revolution, and between the two cities of London and Paris. The passage came to mind as I reflected on the tensions in our conflicted and divided Cuban-American community, following President Obama’s announcement of a rapprochement with the Cuban regime.

The simile seems perfect. The current tensions are a tale of two opposing policies, one of economic sanctions, the other of economic engagement.

The US policy towards Cuba of economic sanctions was enacted in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order in response to the Cuban government’s expropriation without compensation of US assets. In those early days, the policy sought to change the course or nature of the Cuban Revolution.

After the death of President Kennedy, the policy mutated more to one of “containment” under President Lyndon Johnson. Nearly six decades later, the issue remains unresolved, and the topic still dominates the rhetoric surrounding US-Cuba relations.

The US policy of economic engagement with China began in 1972 when President Richard Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China and met with Chairman Mao Zedong. The primary strategic rationale for the visit was to orchestrate a shift in the Cold War balance and gain more leverage over relations with the Soviet Union. Playing to Moscow’s paranoia, President Nixon sought help in ending the Vietnam War, and a peaceful resolution to the conflict over Taiwan.

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Both policy approaches have failed miserably in changing the totalitarian nature of the regimes in China and Cuba and cannot be defended on those grounds. But the sanctions policy has succeeded in its “containment” objective by reducing the economic resources available to the Cuban regime for international mischief, particularly when Cuba lost Soviet subsidies following the breakup of the Soviet Union.

Arguably, and notwithstanding the economic benefits that flow from free-market reforms, the policy of economic engagement has also failed to deliver on its strategic objectives.

Let’s take inventory: the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was primarily due to a failed war in Afghanistan; to successive leadership changes lacking legitimacy; and to internal economic pressures resulting from its massively unproductive system of central economic planning.

The North Vietnamese communist regime, aided by China, captured South Vietnam shortly after the withdrawal of US forces. Taiwan is still militarily menaced by the People’s Republic, and China remains a freedomless society.

When dealing with totalitarian regimes, neither economic engagement nor economic sanctions have delivered a change in the oppressive nature of the regimes. Neither carrots nor sticks seem to work, so what is a US policy maker to do?

Begin by ceasing to foolishly repeat, in propagandist Goebbels-like fashion, that the Cuba embargo has not worked, and must be changed for a policy of economic engagement. This is a deceiving argument that insults the intelligence.

First, the policy has certainly worked in its “containment” objective. Second, if “failure to change the nature of the regime” is offered as the criterion for replacing the policy, then one must also seek a change in the engagement policy with China, which has also failed to change the oppressive nature of that regime.

Sensibly, no one is making that case. A failed policy cannot correct another.

Accept with wisdom that neither policy will influence totalitarian dictatorships in their governance, and avoid raising false hopes in the Cuban people and despair in the freedom-loving exile community. Believe uncompromisingly in liberty, and be incredulous of promises by the Castro regime.

Reject that “repression is the only lasting philosophy,” as decreed by the despised Marquis St. Evrémonde in Dickens’s Tale. And recall that, later that night, he was stabbed to death in his sleep.

It is now the worst of times. Only when freedom finally rings in Cuba, will it be the best of times.

José Azel José Azel

Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba. Follow @JoseAzel.