Obama, Castro, and the perversity of the Cuban embargo

December 16, 2013

There has been a lot of clucking about President Barack Obama shaking hands with Raúl Castro at the funeral of Nelson Mandela. For some it was bad enough that a president the Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin accused of “palling around with terrorists” should extend his hand to a Cuban communist tyrant, while mourning a world hero that former Vice President Dick Cheney still thinks was a terrorist.

Whether Obama was entering into Mandela’s contagious spirit of reconciliation and forgiveness, or following in the footsteps of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan in reaching out to communist enemies, or merely being good-mannered is not clear. What seems plain, however, is that nothing much will come of it. The trade and travel embargo imposed upon Cuba by the United States in 1960 after the communist revolution nationalized American-owned property will remain in force.  

But is maintaining the Cuban freeze a good thing for America? For the world? For Cubans? No, no, and no.

Let’s backtrack. It is almost a century since Vladimir Lenin’s 1917 October Revolution launched Russia on an experiment, inspired by the ideas of Karl Marx, to purge market forces from human affairs. In Marxism-Leninism, capitalism was deemed an affront to humanity, and the eternal system of the free exchange of goods between individuals for money was made illegal and replaced by centrally planned decisions about what to produce and distribute according to a grand plan laid down by the self-elected elite who ran the Soviet communist party.

After seven decades of famine, forced migrations, shortages and dysfunction, accompanied by torture, tyranny and the internal exile, incarceration in gulags and slaughter of 12 million Russians, that grandiose experiment in what was laughably called “socialism” ended in disaster. While those living under capitalism generally grew ever more happy, healthy, and rich, the Soviets could not even feed their own without begging for crumbs from their sworn enemy, the United States.

Thanks to the courage of millions of unnamed and largely forgotten martyrs who fought to end Marxism-Leninism — the true heroes of the Soviet Union — and largely forgotten dissident leaders like Imre Nagy in Hungary and Alexander Dubcek in Czechoslovakia, followed by Lech Walesa in Poland, aided and abetted by the Polish Pope John Paul II, with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher cheering from the bleachers, communism in Russia imploded, bringing down with it the Soviet puppet regimes in Eastern Europe.

The most prominent among the remaining handful of old-school communist holdouts is China, which has kept the Soviet system’s stultifying central planning while imposing on its captive people high-growth state capitalism — an authoritarian, Dickensian system that combines the horrors of both worlds. There is also North Korea, which starves its people to near extinction and is presided over by a Mickey Mouse-loving boy king who bases his governing style on Game of Thrones.

And there is Cuba, a family-run despotic gerontocracy where Raúl Castro, 82, seized the walker from his brother Fidel, 86, when he became debilitated by dementia. Fidel Castro’s sole claim to fame since his bloody revolution is to have brought the world to the brink of extinction in the Cuban Nuclear Missile Crisis of 1962.

So long as the doddering Castro brothers are in charge, Cuba is ripe for another revolution. But this time it will be a free market revolt, not a plunge into further darkness. And what would speed the peaceful liberation of Cubans from half a century of tyranny is if America began negotiations without delay to dismantle the state-run mayhem in exchange for restoring diplomatic and trade relations.

Obama has already started the process by allowing in 2009 Cuban-Americans to send money back to their families trapped in penury. He also relaxed the travel ban and encouraged American communications companies to extend their reach to Cuba. America has also increased trade with Cuba in food, medicine, and humanitarian aid.

The principle of engaging with Cuba was therefore established four years ago. It would be straightforward to move to the next stage, trading goods for human rights, normalization for individual liberties, and hand shaking for closed fists.

With an eye on his legacy, John Kerry has proved a hyperactive Secretary of State who could add freeing Cuba to his wish list. If he can negotiate away Iran’s nuclear program and disarm Bashar al-Assad’s poison gas caches, pushing at Cuba’s open door to freedom would seem an obvious step in finally ending Lenin’s failed attempt to eradicate the trading and bartering that lies at the heart of human nature. Both Kerry and the Defense Secretary, the Republican Chuck Hagel, approve of relaxing the embargo.

So let the free market rip. The feeble remnants of Cuban communism cannot survive a tidal wave of American investors, nor the soft power of millions of American visitors bearing endless goodwill, open hearts, and wallets stuffed with hard currency. What better way of showing the superiority of unbridled market forces over Marxist-driven, centrally-directed, unachievable five-year plans than to crack open this festering fossil on our doorstep? Who could possibly object to that?

There is a snag. By an accident of geography and history, Florida, the nearest American state to Cuba, is a sanctuary for escapees from Cuban communism. It is also a swing state that every presidential candidate needs to woo. A substantial majority of Americans have long favored easing the Cuba trade embargo, but Cuban-Americans in Florida will not hear of it.

Florida politicians like Republican presidential wannabe Senator Marco Rubio, whose grandparents were illegal immigrants from Cuba, and Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, as well as the Democratic Senator for New Jersey, Bob Menendez, continue to oppose the resumption of normal relations. In keeping alive hatred towards the old country for their personal reasons, they are proving themselves as cruel and hidebound as the regime they affect to despise but are inadvertently keeping in power.  

If Florida did not hold a special place in the electoral system, as evidenced by its key role in awarding George W. Bush rather than Al Gore the presidency in the neck-and-neck election of 2000, the Cuban embargo would have been abandoned years ago. Yet through a glitch in the electoral system, the best interests of the United States are being held hostage by a minority of a minority.

Some conservatives describe majority rule, or one man-one vote, or living with the outcomes of elections, as “the tyranny of the majority.” The rest of us call it democracy. In Cuba, a small number of old, confused men hold the rest of the nation hostage. They call it democracy. When the same thing happens here the “tyranny of the majority” crowd call it  “safeguarding the rights of minorities.”

We have seen this movie before, in the House, where the Tea Party rump of the Republican majority — the minority of a majority — hold hostage Speaker John Boehner, its party’s leadership, the House, as well as the whole of the legislative branch. Those anarcho-conservative House members who don’t believe in government, nor taxation, nor majority rule, nor maximizing the numbers voting, like to extol the principles laid down by the Founding Fathers and urge the Supreme Court to interpret the Constitution according to  what the Founders meant.

So would the Founders really insist that millions of Americans remain out of work and economic growth be kept in check just to please a minority of a minority? Or punish the unemployed for being unable to find a job after many months of searching? Or leave Cubans trapped in a hateful system to satisfy old grudges long forgotten? It seems most unlikely.

Nicholas Wapshott is International Editor of Newsweek. He is the author of Keynes Hayek: The Clash That Defined Modern Economics. Read extracts here. Follow Wapshott on Twitter @nwapshott

PHOTO: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) greets Cuban President Raul Castro (C) before giving his speech, as Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff looks on, at the memorial service for late South African President Nelson Mandela at the First National Bank soccer stadium, also known Soccer City, in Johannesburg December 10, 2013. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Kerry has negotiated away Iran’s nuclear program? OK… I guess that’s why it’s in the news every other day, on the verge of falling apart before it even starts.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

Cuban-Americans, politics in Florida, Republicans in Florida and scared Democrats keep this dumb embargo going!

Posted by Hermist | Report as abusive

I largely agree with the arguments in this opinion piece and think there would be more good than harm in normalization with Cuba.

But the attacks on “Those anarcho-conservative House members who don’t believe in government, nor taxation, nor majority rule” is over the top.

It’s more about smaller government, less taxation, and protection for rights of the minority enshrined in the Constitution than “no government, no taxation, or majority rule”

Posted by Dan_from_MV_CA | Report as abusive

Several points in this analysis are biased:

1. “A substantial majority of Americans have long favored easing the Cuba trade embargo, but Cuban-Americans in Florida will not hear of it.”
No mention of the fact that Barack Obama was re-elected with half of the Cuban vote, and that Obama’s decision to let Mariela Castro in the US failed to dent Obama’s chances of winning the Cuban vote. All the Cubans in Miami do not approve of the repression in Cuba, but they are deeply divided over the best way to get the Cuban government to adopt multiparty democracy. If you go onto the website of Joe Garcia (D-FL), you’ll see that he is strongly supportive of Barack Obama’s policy of allowing unlimited Cuban American travel to Cuba for family visits.

2. Anyone who thought that trade would get China and Vietnam to adopt multiparty politics has been disappointed to hear that the leaders of China and Vietnam are pledging never to abandon one-party rule despite US trade with those countries (China’s Xi Jinping believes that the Soviet Union collapsed because it strayed too far from ideological orthodoxy and that sticking to ideological orthodoxy is the only way to preserve political unity in China). So expect Cuba to say no to multiparty democracy just because the US decides to lift the embargo given that Cuba considers one-party rule synonymous with Jose Marti’s theme of political unity.

3. “The feeble remnants of Cuban communism cannot survive a tidal wave of American investors, nor the soft power of millions of American visitors bearing endless goodwill, open hearts, and wallets stuffed with hard currency.”
The authors fails to mention that Canada and Europe have already signed investment deals with Cuba in the past, even though European and Canadian tourism to Cuba has done nothing to get the Cubans to stop repressing the opposition. Even though tourist apartheid no longer exists (Raul Castro lifted the ban on Cubans staying in tourist hotels back in 2008), meaning that Europeans and Canadians can now get lovey-duvey with Cubans at beautiful beaches drinking mojitos, allowing US tourism to Cuba will only give the regime enough resources to crush all opposition, in which case Cuba’s beaches will be punctuated with the blood of murdered Cuban dissidents. Communism in Eastern Europe and the USSR did not collapse because of tourism; it collapsed because the leaders of Eastern Europe didn’t realize that the cost of maintaining their repressive apparatuses was no longer sustainable. Therefore, I highly doubt that US investment and tourism with Cuba will bring down one-party rule.

4. “With an eye on his legacy, John Kerry has proved a hyperactive Secretary of State who could add freeing Cuba to his wish list…..Both Kerry and the Defense Secretary, the Republican Chuck Hagel, approve of relaxing the embargo.”
Chuck Hagel’s argument against the embargo was made in the context of the time when Fidel Castro was still in power after 40 years of iron rule. With El Comandante gone, it’s arguable whether he supports expansion of ties with Cuba (e.g. establishing contacts with Cuban military) because he’s not the one who decides matters in US-Cuba policy. Kerry, for his part, supported the US embargo during his 2004 presidential campaign and he has a rather mixed voting record on Cuba policy, having opposed the passage of the Helms-Burton Act whilst opposing lifting the ban on tourist travel to Cuba (see http://www.ontheissues.org/Cabinet/John_ Kerry_Foreign_Policy.htm#Voting_Record for Kerry’s position on Helms-Burton Act). The fact that he acknowledges the economic reforms in Cuba while criticizing Cuba’s lack of democracy (just like Obama and Biden) shows that he has no illusion that economic reforms alone are a separate matter from political reform and that the Obama administration is pressuring Castro to allow his people freedom of speech and assembly. While encouraging private entrepreneurs in Cuba, Obama and Kerry are firm in their position that they will allow the Golden Arches to come to Cuba only if Cuba stops repressing the opposition and dismantles its repressive security apparatus because they know if they gave Castro enough money to crush his opponents, then Cuba’s beautiful beaches will be spoiled with the blood of members of the Ladies in White and other opposition groups. This kind of policy is exactly the equivalent of several nannies trying to coax spoiled children to get their act together and calm down.

Posted by Vodik | Report as abusive

Have never understood why we trade with China, a Communist nation, and not Cuba. Especially since many of the items we import from China have sickened and/or killed people and pets.

Oh, forgot – we borrow money from China, so that country is okay.

Posted by AZreb | Report as abusive

Should the USA reconsider the embargo and begin to trade with Cuba, the whole Castro inspired Marxist regime would fall like overripe fruit. However, this would bring up the question of the people who ran away from this regime and left property and treasure there. How, and will, they ever be compensated for their loses. I’m sure Fidel et-al did not keep records.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

Once the Castros are gone we can once again make Cuba a defacto possesion of the United State and reinstall all the casinos, prostitution and organized crime so that our senators and representatives have a vacation spot over the holidays. Maybe if they can have their gambling, booze and whores out of sight of their families once again, they’ll stop being cruel a-holes to the rest of us.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

The idea that normalized relations with the United States will automatically lead to freedom for the Cuban people is absurd. China was also once a repressed, impoverished, and unstable state. And, the United States once transitioned from virtually no normal relations with China to an open political and economic relationship.

The result? China is rich and threatening to overtake the United States, and the people there continue to live under terrible political repression.

Anytime someone tells you easing the embargo will help to make Cuba free, just point to the continued communist control of china, and ask them to repeat what they just said.

Posted by mburn16 | Report as abusive

Normal relations with Cuba need to happen NOW.

I think most Americans are as sick as I am that we allow the Cuban American supporters of the pre-Castro dictator to dictate our foreign policy towards Cuba for 50+ years.

Posted by emm305 | Report as abusive