How I Saw The Cuba Embargo In A New Light

Change is both necessary and inevitable. For lawmakers and investors, defense doves and hawks, the US’s diplomatic shift to normalize relations with the communist island of Cuba is among the most significant changes in policy in the past half century. The move has as many proponents as it has detractors: the US Senate, recently won over by Republicans in the last election, showed skepticism that an opening would lead to any change, arguing that the increased economic activity would only benefit the authoritarian regime. The private sector, on the other hand, is certainly counting on the economics of this deal, and have been anxious to invest there. Recently, the Cuban government opened a bank account in a Florida-based bank just as the US removed Cuba from the list of state-sponsors of terror, a move many see as a necessary step in establishing an embassy in the US. In the past, I weighed in favor of eliminating the embargo, seeing it as an anachronism of the Cold War. A closer look reveals that lifting the embargo is not the panacea that many promise, and more is certainly to be done.

To get a better sense of the discussion, I attended a debate at the University of Tampa sponsored by the United Nations Charter in Tampa Bay, where two experts spoke on the merits of the shift. Patrick Manteiga, editor and publisher of La Gaceta newspaper argued in favor of the opening, believing that an increase in trade would allow for American soft power to funnel to the people, and consequently, influence the government to change course. Against was retired US Air Force Colonel Evelio Otero, former Congressional candidate and intelligence officer with tours at both US Central Command and US Special Operations Command. Otero believes that a loosening of the embargo would only bolster a rogue state, and any change must start with concessions by Cuba’s government on a number of issues, from democratization and human rights, to the restitution of US private sector assets seized during Castro’s rise and worth about $7 billion today, about 12% of Cuba’s annual GDP.

History gives us a few examples of what happens when communist states transition towards democratized, liberal economies. The question is, would lifting the embargo precipitate Cuba’s democratization, and is it currently headed in that direction? Any discussion of Cuba’s future should start in 1986, when Mikhail Gorbachev presided over the Soviet Union’s transition away from communism and towards improved ties with the US, having become exhausted by a costly military buildup against its Western rival. Two policy initiatives, Perestroika and Glasnost, were at the heart of the Soviet shift. With Perestroika, Gorbachev hoped to ramp down the costly Soviet military posture while correspondingly investing to revitalize the economy. This policy served as the foundation of future disarmament initiatives like the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. Glasnost, the social sibling to Perestroika, sought to achieve greater freedoms, openness, and free expression for citizens.

Turning away from the “Brezhnev Doctrine” of military intervention where threats to communism arose, Gorbachev encouraged leaders of its satellite states to seek their own path. Hungary and Poland underwent social and political change, and promptly held popular elections. Likewise, East Germans called for similar freedoms, achieving reforms and an opening with its western neighbor while Moscow kept its distance. Turning Dwight Eisenhower’s Domino Theory on its head, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Albania also followed suit. Unlike its satellite states, Soviet Russia suffered internal conflicts within the communist party, which undermined Gorbachev’s rule and turned the aspirations of a soft landing towards democracy into a collapse.

The past gives us some indications about Cuba’s future. In aggregate, communist Europe’s transition appears more like a controlled demolition, a combination of deliberate policy as well as a runaway deterioration of old institutions in favor of new ones. Similarly, the influential political institutions of today, whether Cuba’s communist party or dormant democratic elements, will have the ultimate say in Cuba’s future success (or failure). Gorbachev’s “hands-off” policy allowed the post-Soviet institutions to germinate, yet internal conflicts within the communist party sabotaged the possibility of a better outcome for Moscow; it is doubtful that the Castro’s will assume such an approach.

One could speculate that Cuba is seeking a third path, not a runaway collapse that destroys the communist order, nor an rapid transition to democracy, but its own controlled demolition consisting of reciprocal concessions between itself and the US. After a May 10th meeting with Pope Francis that lasted for nearly an hour, President Raul Castro signaled a potential shift in the regime’s stance towards religion, expressing that he himself may someday return to the faith. These overtures may not be enough to convince proponents of the embargo like Col Otero, but one must remember that in international relations, the crown jewel of negotiations is the ability to achieve what both sides want while allowing each side to save face.

Watchers of Cuba may be in total disagreement as to whether Cuba is currently headed in a positive direction. I left the debate with the thought that, while a lifting of the embargo is a necessary component of improving the status quo, it cannot be the only step. Part of this change involves resolving the issue of political prisoners, as well as the repression of civil rights. Other issues, like the fulfillment of debt should not be allowed to become a sine qua non, and given Cuba’s economic state, should be compromised upon. History and reason show that taking steps to be a fully engaged, willing, and active participant in its own transformation is the best opportunity for Cuba. We must encourage them to seize it.

Originally published at on May 28, 2015.

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