The American flag was raised over Cuba this weekend for the first time in 54 years at the official reopening of the US Embassy in Havana. Three of the Marines who lowered the flag as young men in 1961 ran it up the flagpole as old men.
Diplomatic relations between our two nations have been officially restored.
This is controversial in the United States, to say the least, but look: Cuba is not Iran, and it is not Syria. It certainly isn’t the Islamic State’s psychopathic “caliphate” in Raqqa.
Nothing bad is going to happen to the United States because we’re talking to Cuba again. Cuba is no longer hostile to the United States in any way that could conceivably harm us.
The Castro regime is hostile to ordinary Cubans, though, no doubt about it. It still runs the island as a jailhouse state with by far the worst human rights record in the Western Hemisphere.
Dissidents are routinely arrested and thrown into prison. Those who are eventually sent home live under constant total surveillance. The government stakes out their homes with intelligence agents and even video cameras.
Poverty is enforced by law. The vast majority of citizens are not permitted to earn more than twenty dollars a month unless they work in the tourist sector and get tips from foreigners. They’ll go to prison if they catch and eat a lobster. (All lobsters are strictly reserved for government-owned restaurants that cater to foreigners.) Private Internet access is illegal.
“The people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in Havana at the embassy’s reopening ceremony, “where people are free to choose their leaders.”
Indeed. And we should be honest about the fact that restoring diplomatic relations will not make that happen.
But it probably won’t stymie it either. Why would it? Cubans will either revolt against the government and bring it down or they won’t. Having diplomatic relations with Tunisia didn’t prevent people from overthrowing the crooked Ben Ali a couple of years ago. Nor did diplomatic relations with South Korea and Taiwan in the early years of the Cold War prevent those countries from transitioning to democracy from military rule.
I visited Cuba in 2013. The economic reforms President Raul Castro has implemented are so marginal that they’re barely even detectable. Cuba is not communist-in-name-only like China and Vietnam. It’s still startlingly old-school.
Economic activity scarcely exists. It doesn’t matter how much money you have, there’s almost nothing to buy. Cubans still live mostly on ration cards. There are no boutique shopping districts, no chain stores, no corporate billboards along the highways and certainly no big-box stores like Target.
Billboards consist entirely of hysterical state propaganda. All newspapers (which is to say, both of them) are owned and controlled by the government. Dialogue doesn’t exist in that country. The state lectures and hectors while everyone else shuts up and listens.
Much of the propaganda is cartoonishly anti-American, but let me tell you: ordinary people hardly ever talk smack about the United States. I didn’t hear a single complaint about we dreaded Yankee imperialists from a single person. On the contrary, Cubans make it abundantly clear that they admire what we have and would like it for themselves. Their attitudes are remarkably mature, and their knowledge of the United States and its political system is surprisingly undistorted considering the fact that they’ve lived in a global media blackout and been served nothing but lies from their own government for more than a half-century.
Let’s just say that they’re a lot more friendly and neighborly than Fidel Castro.
I can’t be sure about this, but I’d wager they’re more pro-American than anyone else in the hemisphere. They’re certainly more pro-American than Mexicans and they’re probably more pro-American than Canadians.
They aren’t more pro-American despite living under a communist regime. They’re more pro-American because they live under a communist regime.
Don’t be surprised. We saw this in Europe. To this day, formerly communist Europe is vastly more pro-American than Western Europe. The only exception is Serbia, partly because the United States went to war against Serbia twice during the genocidal Milosevic era, but mostly because Serbians feel a cultural and political kinship with Russia.
Cuba is not a Caribbean version of Serbia. It’s more like a Caribbean version of Poland that hasn’t yet managed to free itself. If it had a land border with the United States, the regime almost certainly would have collapsed a long time ago. Practically every Cuban on earth would now be living in Florida. The regime should thank God, Marx and Engels that nature provided it with a permanent Berlin Wall in the form of the sea.
So we have an embassy in Havana again, but all is not normal. The embargo is still firmly in place. The White House and the State Department can restore diplomatic relations on their own, but Congress decides whether or not to lift sanctions. And Congress is not in the mood.
The Cuban government, for its part, insists that diplomatic relations will not be fully normalized until after the embargo is history, which is fair enough, actually. Nations with which we have truly normal relations—Canada, Chile, India, Japan and so on—are not being sanctioned by the American government.
It goes without saying that the embargo hasn’t led to democracy in Cuba, though that was not its original purpose. Congress imposed it when Fidel Castro stole millions of dollars in American property after he seized power from Fulgencio Batista. The embargo was partly a punishment, but it was also a way to future-proof American assets from a thieving gangster regime.
The embargo stuck around after the end of the Cold War, though, because it theoretically gave the United States a bit of leverage to bring Cuba’s political system in line with the norms in our hemisphere.
It didn’t work.
So maybe it is time to just scrap it. The government is spectacularly unlikely to steal American property again. Raul Castro’s second priority after keeping himself and his party in power is enriching the island.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Lifting the embargo won’t lead to democracy either. It would help the Cuban economy, and it would give Americans another nearby tourist option, but it would not bring about a regime-change any more than trading with Vietnam and China have led to regime-change in those countries. Lifting the embargo would, however, dissolve whatever leverage Washington might otherwise have in the future.
It would be a little like a surrender on our part. But surrender to what?
Should we do it?
Writers like me are supposed to pretend we have all the answers. I’m sorry to say that I don’t.