Since Fidel Castro’s death, speculation about the future of U.S.-Cuba relations under President-elect Donald Trump’s administration has been intense. Will Trump continue President Obama’s opening, as many urge, or will he work to bring it to a halt following the advice of anti-Castro critics like senators Marco Rubio, Bob Menendez and Ted Cruz?
After Castro’s death, Trump released a statement saying that Fidel Castro was “a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.” He went on to say he hoped Castro’s death would mark “a move away from the horrors endured for too long, and toward a future in which the wonderful Cuban people finally have the freedom they so richly deserve.” He concluded that his “administration will do all it can to ensure that the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty.” Later, he tweeted that if Cuba “is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate that deal.”
Both sides in the debate say they want to advance Cuba’s transition from communism to democracy. The question is what strategy is the right one?
On one side are those like Admiral James Stavridis, who acknowledges that Cuba under Fidel Castro was a “harsh dictatorship.” While he has no illusions about this, unlike left-wing apologists, he argues that the current U.S. embargo, or “blockade” as Castro called it, only “empowered Fidel to keep that lack of progress in place.” Therefore, he defends Obama’s moves to open Cuba up as correct. He knows that for the present, Raul Castro, whom he calls Fidel’s “less talented brother,” will be able to use the state’s tools of repression to maintain tight control of the populace.
However, he believes that Fidel’s passing is symbolically important; he was the one most identified with the country’s broken economy and repression. If Raul wants to, he can move slowly to open the economy. That, of course is a big if. But nevertheless, the Admiral argues that the United States “should continue to engage with Cuba,” should lift the embargo, and makes a case that doing so “will affect Cuba in ways that achieve U.S. objectives.”
William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University, points out that there has been not “one deal,” but rather, a series of agreements. Whatever easing up has taken place in Cuba, he claims, came from reduced tensions between the two nations, and not because of political concessions demanded by the United States. Thus, if the Trump administration makes new demands for concessions, “It won’t get them far.”
In The New Yorker, veteran foreign correspondent Jon Lee Anderson, author of a biography of Che Guevara who is now writing one of Fidel Castro, writes that the appointment of Mauricio Claver-Carone to Trump’s transition team at Treasury does not bode well for those who want Obama’s course to continue. Claver-Carone has been critical of Obama’s policy, writing an op-ed arguing that Obama has “made a bad situation worse” in Cuba.
Anderson notes that the Brookings Institution’s Ted Piccone postulates that Trump might freeze commercial relations with Cuban state-owned enterprises and move to enforce new travel rules. At present, anyone can go to Cuba by simply checking a list of approved categories and no one asks for proof that is what the traveler will do on the island. Anderson, however, argues that if Trump follows such a harsh policy, he will enrage Cuban nationalists who “will take umbrage” at such pressure, and if Trump simply cancels Obama’s executive orders and agreements, he would immediately torpedo a diplomatic breakthrough that took years of talks with Cuba to attain. That, many observers add, would give more power to Cuban old-line communists who like Fidel, do not approve of the opening.
But what the supporters of Obama’s deal miss is that when it took effect and Obama went to Cuba to witness the opening of the U.S. embassy that had been closed by Castro for decades, he essentially gave the Cuban regime what it asked for (except formally ending the embargo, which only Congress can do) without requiring them to take small steps, such as releasing all remaining political prisoners and putting a stop to the current weekly short-term arrests of dissidents. Nor did Obama even ask that the dreadful treatment of the political prisoners in its jails be put to an end. Human Rights Watch, hardly a right-wing organization, portrays the situation in Cuba in these words:
Prisons are overcrowded, unhygienic, and unhealthy, leading to extensive malnutrition and illness. More than 57,000 Cubans are in prisons or work camps, according to a May 2012 article in an official government newspaper. Prisoners who criticize the government or engage in hunger strikes and other forms of protest are subjected to extended solitary confinement, beatings, restrictions on family visits, and denial of medical care. Prisoners have no effective complaint mechanism to seek redress.
Since Obama’s concessions, in fact, the state of democracy in Cuba has gotten worse, and the arrests and imprisonment of dissidents have increased. Moreover, the very limited market reforms instituted by Raul Castro have been scaled back, rather than extended.
So the critics of the deal, including Trump, are right in claiming that since it began two years ago, it has failed to produce any major changes, aside from an influx of American tourists and the money they spend, which largely goes to military and government-owned hotels.
As Claver-Carone observes in the Miami Herald: “Since that Dec. 17, 2014, announcement, there’s been little to celebrate. Political repression in Cuba is at historic highs; emigration has risen to levels not seen since the 1994 flight of rafters; violations of religious freedom have increased tenfold; and the rate of growth of the so-called ‘emerging private sector’ (“cuentapropistas”) has turned negative.”
But this does not necessarily mean that he and the other critics are correct when they argue Trump should rescind by executive order all the changes put into effect by Obama when he gets into office.
The fact is that if he attempted that, Trump would be opposed not only by liberals and leftists who harbor sympathy with the Castro regime and tend to believe that any repression in Cuba was the fault of the United States embargo, but by major elements in the American corporate community. Too much has been done to return to the years before the opening.
Jet Blue and American Airlines, soon to be joined by United Airlines, are making direct flights to Cuba from the U.S. six times a day. Also, now permitted are tours of Cuba by ships especially built to circle the island with American visitors abroad. Major cruise lines have already gained permission to make Cuba one of the stops on their Caribbean routes. In addition, Master Card is now allowed to be used by American citizens while in Cuba, and direct telephone service with the States has been instituted. With scores of tours from every major U.S. tourist agencies scheduled two years in advance, already paid for by American citizens, cancellation of all the new arrangements would be more than difficult.
Finally, businesses as well as farmers who are anxious for trade with Cuba and have been lobbying for it for many years will mount even more pressure to continue with the opening. Trump, a businessman above all, will certainly not be immune to hearing out their arguments. It is hardly surprising that in 1990, Trump sent representatives of his hotel groups to Cuba to explore the possibilities for a Trump property there, even though to do so was a violation of the embargo.
These facts do not mean that the United States under a Trump administration should merely continue to leave policy as is. I believe that the embargo, contrary to the advice of Admiral Stavridis and many others, should not be lifted by Congress. To do that would leave the United States with absolutely no leverage when negotiating with Raul Castro. The United States, for example, should demand that wages paid to Cuban workers in hotels that are part American-owned should be in dollars and the actual salary paid directly to the workers. Now, even if an American hotel group pays a Cuban worker a few hundred dollars a week, the amount is given to the Cuban government, which then pays that worker $20 in worthless Cuban pesos.
Negotiators should also demand that the Cuban government expand its limited market reforms, allowing businesses to thrive and providing Cubans with the hope and opportunities they have been deprived of. As The Washington Post wrote in a stinging editorial, Cuba’s severe economic problems led Raul Castro to agree to a reform, one that was “too eagerly reciprocated by President Obama,” and was an initiative that “brought in more U.S. dollars and tourists but no relief from stifling and frequently violent repression of speech, assembly and other basic human rights.” To lift the embargo would be to continue along the path of appeasing Raul Castro, giving him the biggest prize that the regime has always sought, again without asking anything in return.
True, Fidel Castro always could blame the embargo as the reason for Cuba’s very dire straits. But even if Raul Castro continues to make that argument, it will ultimately fall on deaf ears. The Cuban people already know that it was the command Soviet-style economy, as well as Fidel Castro’s many crazy schemes like working around the clock in 1970 to achieve a 10 million ton sugar crop in one year, that has produced the sad state in which its citizens now live. As for inequality coming to an end, Castro during his lifetime attained that goal by making the entire population equally poor (except for his own family and other apparatchiks), and no Soviet subsidies in the past or the cheap oil provided during the Hugo Chavez regime in Venezuela could create prosperity.
Raul Castro is hardly a Cuban Mikhail Gorbachev, who began perestroika in the Soviet Union and political and economic reforms that led to the USSR’s total collapse. He supported and was enforcer of his brother’s most horrendous policies, and his tepid reforms were simply an attempt to keep things from boiling over and exploding. The model he would like is akin to China’s market capitalism, while keeping both the one-party state that does not allow for dissent or any movement that could lead to real political change and democracy.
But the critics are wrong to want to put an end completely to the new opening. Keeping U.S. tourists coming to Cuba does provide dollars for the regime, but it also gives the Cuban people an example of a spirit of democracy. Americans engaged in dialogue will make quite clear that democracy is far preferable to the communist regime’s repressive policies. If Cubans are finally allowed to freely travel to the United States for a visit, that too will give them a direct example of how free the United States is, how political debate exists and how any current administration can be publicly criticized and attacked, and they will get a taste of what freedom is. Eventually, the Cuban people will force a real opening, and the long-awaited fall of the Cuban communist state will begin to take place.