The Anti-Cuba Lobby Has Jumped the Shark

By trading in denunciations, lies, and distortions -- instead of a reasonable discussion about how to open Cuba -- the rabid embargo lobby is starting to sound a lot like Castro himself.

Sven CREUTZMANN/AFP/Getty Images
Sven CREUTZMANN/AFP/Getty Images

In the past month, former diplomats and administration officials, business leaders, public intellectuals, and even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have raised questions about the effectiveness of the United States’s half-century-old embargo on Cuba. They’ve dared to propose different ways to promote human rights and change in the totalitarian state. They’ve called for carefully tinkering with — but not eliminating — the U.S. embargo on Cuba to provide more direct, private support for independent civil society, a growing non-state sector, and more connectivity.

From the response, you would have thought that they had called for Fidel Castro to be a judge on next season’s The Voice.   

Unfortunately, but not unpredictably, these reasonable calls for a public debate on Cuba policy have been met with distortions and personal attacks, as if even daring to raise the question of the efficacy of the monolithic 52-year-old embargo — the likes of which Washington has never applied on any other country — is akin to treason. Embargo questioners are denounced as apostates or crony capitalists who must have some other agenda than concern for the future of Cuba and the plight of its long-suffering citizens. Cuban-American signatories, in particular, are singled out for unique opprobrium. 

The reaction is in part an understandable but knee-jerk response, grown out of the decades in which the only groups calling for the normalization of relations with Cuba came from U.S. organizations more concerned with apologizing for the Cuban Revolution or advocating for the release of five (now three) Cuban spies than advocating for human rights of Cubans trapped inside the Castros’ island jail. (In an event that was both astoundingly misguided and dippy, one of those organizations, the Latin America Working Group, recently hosted an event to sell watercolors painted by the spies in prison to raise money for their release.) But those who’ve raised questions about the embargo in the past few weeks haven’t been coming from that corner. Instead they reflect the growing recognition of real, but modest and insecure change that is currently taking place in Cuba and that a new generation that has grown tired of waiting. This new push is coming from former government officials — Republican and Democrat — former military officers, Cuban-American business and community leaders, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Op-eds, such as the one that recently ran in the Washington Post or in the Financial Times have raised the issue of whether it’s time to reconsider elements of the embargo. An open letter to President Barack Obama (to which, in full disclosure, I was a signatory — though the least important of the more than 40 of us) urged similar measures. At the same time, polls are showing growing popular frustration with the embargo, including among Cuban Americans.

In Cuba, the failures and shortages created by 55 years under a socialist command economy has forced the government, now run by Fidel Castro’s younger 83-year-old brother Raul, to take steps to inject minor market incentives into the economy, such as allowing individuals to form small businesses in over 300 government-determined categories and permitting farmers to pool their holdings or till unused state land to produce for and sell on private markets. These timid reforms have given birth to an incipient and insecure entrepreneurial class which, according to studies by the Brookings Institution, includes over 450,000 private business owners — many of them supported only through the local informal economy and remittances from relatives in the United States.

For this reason, a broad segment of former Democratic and Republican administration officials and business leaders have called on President Barack Obama to loosen restrictions for contact and trade with independent entrepreneurs and greater telecommunications connections with the island. The last week of May, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donohue, also traveled to the forbidden island and met with entrepreneurs and called for greater economic reform in Cuba.

Supporting these people should be as American as apple pie, right? Who’s against entrepreneurs and a free Internet?

But rather than discuss or engage on the merits of support for independent economic activity and connectivity, a small group of traditional embargo supporters — the usual suspects — has misrepresented the arguments in the open letter and Donohue’s statements on the island, claiming that they call for trade with the regime and an all-out assault on the holy embargo. They’ve resorted to name-calling, denouncing the signatories of the members of the Chamber delegation as craven profiteers, lobbyists, or consultants seeking to open up Cuba in order to make a buck.

And in some cases, they’ve opted for wild hyperbole: One editorial in the Miami Herald, by Carlos Alberto Montaner, a well-known commentator and author — and a man I know and respect — claimed that making any changes to the embargo amounted to concessions to a government that had once "made a pact with the Soviet Union and even asked for a preventive nuclear attack during the missile crisis" and asks whether the U.S. really wants to take a benevolent attitude toward a government that is in "cahoots with Iran, North Korea, Russia and the countries of so-called 21st Century Socialism."

Never mind that the Soviet-Havana pact was over 53 years ago, and that two of the letter’s signatories — former Foreign Policy editor Moises Naim and businessman Gustavo Cisneros — are staunch members of the anti-Chavismo opposition in Venezuela, one of those very bastions of 21st-century socialism. Nor did those so quick to cry "human rights" and to mobilize Cuban dissidents to back up their case bother to check in with members of the dissident community — prominent blogger Yoani Sanchez is just one example — who support liberalizing the embargo either.

It’s worth looking at what the open letter actually says: For one, nowhere does it call for trade with the Cuban regime. Quite the opposite. The letter specifically states that the aspiring small-scale Cuban capitalists struggling under a smothering socialist system deserve access to finance and wholesale inputs denied them by the systematically un-capitalist regime. Along those lines, it calls for a targeted loosening of the embargo in order to allow private organizations and individuals to support independent economic activity on the island. It urges the United States to allow for measures such as microcredit, commerce with non-state economic actors, and internships for aspiring business owners. It asks that private business organizations in the Unit
ed States of all stripes — everyone from restaurant associations to computer repair workers — be able to travel to Cuba and meet and work with their capitalist counterparts on the island. All of these are intended to bypass the Cuban state and strengthen individual, independent capacity.

The letter also called for greater opportunities for telecommunications connections with the famously isolated island. Two congressionally approved laws, the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act (the un-ironically named Libertad Act) have placed severe constraints on the ability of U.S. telecoms companies to connect Cuban citizens through the United States — despite the fact that over 1 million Cubans already have cell phones. Oddly, in comparison to the far more threatening North Korean and Iranian regimes, there are greater controls on U.S. telecommunications investment and contact with Cuba. This is odder still given the importance of social media and the Internet in the Arab Spring, which brought about the downfall of so many despotic regimes.

Today, given the advanced age of the Castros (Fidel 87, Raul 83) and the Cuban Politburo, and the emerging non-state sector, isn’t it time to try to build links between organizations and individuals on either side of the Florida Straits? 

More than a half-century of experience with one policy has failed to produce change. Those who hoped that the original embargo legislation would weaken the regime and eventually lead to popular disgust that could fuel wider protests have been proven wrong. There is no sign yet that Cuban democratic activists, for all their courage, can or are on the brink of rising up. In the meantime, the U.S. government and Cuba’s long-suffering entrepreneurs are told to wait — just a little longer — while average citizens continue to suffer under the Castros’ miserable failure of an economic and political project. And attempts that might create the conditions for an organic process of change on the island — a strong private sector, a burgeoning civil society — are stifled by a special interest that shouts down its opposition, rather than engaging with it to come up with policies that bring us closer to a brighter Cuban future.

A fundamental element of a democracy is a culture of reasoned political discussion. Sadly, that has not been the case in the debate over the efficacy of an inflexible half-century of failed policy. 

In the end, maybe we will all decide that providing limited, targeted openings to support independent civil society and economic activity — as the United States has done in other countries — is a bad idea for Cuba. Fair enough. 

But in the meantime, everyone should recognize that, given the failure of current efforts, groups and individuals who raise serious questions about our policies may not actually have ulterior motives. They might not be crony capitalists, tycoons, or lobbyists. Maybe, just maybe, they want democracy in Cuba too — and after 52 years, they believe that it’s worth exploring another way to get there. 

It’s a discussion that we desperately need to have — and that Cuba desperately needs us to have. Because ultimately, this is a debate that our counterparts, under the repressive, totalitarian Castro regime cannot participate in. There, questioning government policies and their effectiveness brings denunciations, lies, and distortions.

Wait — that sounds a little too familiar. 

Christopher Sabatini is a senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, the director of Global Americans, and a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Twitter: @ChrisSabatini

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