Castro’s Illness Signals Need for U.S. to Normalize Relations with Cuba

Originally posted: August 16, 2006

The recent news that an ailing Fidel Castro ceded power to his brother affords us an opportunity to consider what is, by any standard, a failed U.S. foreign policy with Cuba.

Brett-OBannon.jpgFor nearly 50 years, the U.S. has been single-minded in its determination to remove Castro from power. Nine American presidents have sought his ouster. Their collective failure is, perhaps, a testament to the limits of the ability of the U.S. to translate its military and economic power into influence. After all, a bit of intestinal bleeding accomplished what embargoes, a poisoned cigar planted by the CIA, and even an outright military invasion could not.

On a recent flight to Europe, a school teacher from Norway sitting next to me asked about the book I had just planted in the seat pouch in front of me. I told her it was a text I was considering for an upcoming class on U.S. Foreign Policy. She nodded and replied, rather pointedly, with a question, “So, why do you treat Cuba that way?” I figured I was in for a long flight.

To make any sense of what she and the rest of the world find not just a failed policy, but a mean and misguided one, I suggested one must consider multiple levels of analysis: the historical experience of the Cold War, in which the Cuban Missile Crisis was a pivotal and frightening moment; the impact of domestic politics, particularly the Cuban-American lobby; and, frankly, the institutional inertia that can characterize policymaking.

“Yes,” she acknowledged, “but why treat Cuba that way?” I saw her point. Our policy is perverse; it is costly, contrary to our stated values and inconsistent with other relevant foreign policies. Fundamentally, the problem is this: if our interest is to democratize Cuba, why do we seemingly do everything we know will prevent the conditions associated with democracy from emerging?

For example, it is almost axiomatic that democracy requires a thriving middle class. That is why our China policy, regardless of who’s been in the White House, has essentially sought change from within the communist country. Trade with China is said to spur the kind of economic development that produces a democracy-minded, rights-demanding middle class. Our Cuba policy reflects the obstinate belief that we can smother it into democracy.

The reality is that we bully Cuba at great expense to its people and ourselves. We not only lose the admittedly marginal benefits of trade with the tiny island nation, but also more importantly, we lose face with the world. Our human rights and fair play rhetoric can only look hollow in light of our continued mistreatment of the Cuban people.

East College (South)Castro’s illness affords us an opportunity we should seize. We must recognize that we cannot force Castro from power, but it should now be clear that he will not govern forever. We ought to turn our attention to preventing post-Castro Cuba from collapsing into chaos, circumstances from which those who pine for the dictatorial days of Batista would profit greatly. This requires the political will in Congress to confront the powerful — but increasingly divided — exile community. The Cuban American National Foundation, for example, owned our Cuba policy for decades, despite its well-known ties to terrorist organizations. Many times throughout the 1980s and ’90s, CANF prevented a more reasonable U.S. posture.

The events of the past week should make it clear that change in Cuba is inevitable, and though we seemingly have no control over events there, it would be mutually advantageous to restructure our relationship to be more in line with our democracy promotion rhetoric. If the Cuban people are going to profit from the end of Castro regime, the U.S. should begin the process of restoring normal relations with our neighbor by repealing the Helms-Burton Act, which codified into law a framework of punishing, but ultimately ineffective, economic sanctions.

Bringing our Cuba policy in line with mainstream thinking about how to support positive socio-political change in a communist country would begin to improve the lot of the Cuban people, and it would also earn the U.S. some goodwill around the world, of which we’ve been in very short supply in recent years.

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