- By José R. CárdenasJose R. Cardenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.
In an article published last week in Foreign Policy, Christopher Sabatini called for elevating the tone of the debate on U.S.-Cuba relations by dispensing with what he characterized as shouting and name-calling. If that is the case, it is not quite clear how referring to supporters of the U.S. embargo as "rabid," and as the mirror image of the despots in Havana, contributes to his idea of "reasoned political discussion."
Be that as it may, Sabatini writes that not every critic of U.S. policy is a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. That is certainly true. There is no shortage of people of good will, frustrated by the ungodly conditions forced upon the Cuban people by the Castro regime, who argue for changes in U.S. policy to ostensibly help the Cuban people improve their lot in the face of oppressive state control.
Specifically, Sabatini argues that targeted economic engagement towards Cuba’s nascent micro-entrepreneurs "might create the conditions for an organic process of change on the island" by fostering citizen independence in Cuba and less reliance on the state.
According to Sabatini, "Supporting these people should be as American as apple pie, right?"
For the sake of the Cuban people, would that that were the case. Allowing micro-credits and U.S.-sourced inputs to budding Cuban entrepreneurs may make for an interesting intellectual exercise (and salve a few consciences), but it has as about much chance of changing Cuba as the Castro brothers abdicating tomorrow.
Fifty years of dictatorship in Cuba have unfortunately taught us certain truths — truths that are impervious to such noble sentiments as wanting to "do something" to empower Cubans against their oppressors.
This regime has not survived for five decades without knowing what threatens it internally and what doesn’t. They understand more than anyone what de Tocqueville meant when he wrote that, "the most critical moment for evil governments is the one which witnesses their first steps toward reform." To Havana, it’s not "reform or die," it is "reform and die." Indeed, the most reviled international figure inside the regime is not any American president. It is Mikhail Gorbachev, who believed the communist system could be reformed and the Party retain its primacy. The Castro brothers are not about to make his "mistake."
A second truth to understand about Cuba is that no U.S. policymaker will ever want to get rid of the Castro regime more than the regime wants to stay in power. It is not just an uneven playing field — it is one tilting at 85 degrees. Cuba’s generals know there are only two outcomes for them: total control or wind up like Mussolini or Ceausescu. To think they will be outwitted or outsmarted by Foggy Bottom bureaucrats is simply folly.
Lastly, the micro-economic space opened up for individual Cubans is hardly indicative of new thinking among Cuba’s geriatric generals. Sabatini acknowledges as much, calling them "minor, timid, and insecure." That’s because they are not meant as a real reform attempt to improve lives of the Cuban people. Their purpose is twofold: To get Cubans off the state payrolls and to tax activity that is already occurring on the black market.
They are meant to be minor and reversible. As soon as they have served their purpose in providing some economic relief to the state, they will be rolled back just as the regime has done countless times before. It will happen the moment the regime detects a breach in the parameters of tolerated civilian independence or when economic circumstances change. That is what happened in the 1990s when similar limited self-employment opportunities were allowed. As soon as the mendicant Castro brothers began receiving Venezuelan subsidies, the pressure was off and the openings reversed.
Well, won’t that at this point generate a popular backlash against the regime? The regime has paid no price for 50 years of crackdowns on its own people; why would it worry now?
Or else, what’s the harm in trying? Nothing else has worked. Because it becomes a distraction to the core issue: an unrepentant dictatorship that believes it has the metaphysical right to control every facet of its citizens’ lives in the pursuit of some warped historical vision. And what would we discover in the end? That the Castro regime is against reform? Count me out.
Sabatini writes, "More than a half-century of experience with one policy has failed to produce change." But he has no monopoly on frustration or humanitarian concern. All decent people are frustrated with the lack of change in Cuba and the terrible toll Castroism has taken on the Cuban people — most of all Cuban-Americans, who continue to see their homeland systematically destroyed while the world mocks their protests.
I would give anything to propose a surefire policy prescription that would end Cuba’s nightmare. But after 30 years studying the issue, it is clear to me that there will be no change in Cuba until the Castro brothers, and their generation, are gone from the scene. Ideally, the world would come to the same conclusion, but that is pie in the sky. Nor is this to abandon the Cuban people to their fate. There are numerous channels through which humanitarian assistance from the United States is reaching the Cuban people. Under the tragic circumstances, that is the best we can do until nature takes its course.