Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

The Cuba Rapprochement That Never Will Be

Make no mistake about it: President Barack Obama’s decision to recast relations with dictatorial Cuba is less about trying to achieve fundamental change on the island than it is an ephemeral effort at “legacy-burnishing” (not to mention sating a noisy gaggle of Castroite groupies, professional Latin Americanists, and a sympathetic media commentariat who have been ...

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Make no mistake about it: President Barack Obama’s decision to recast relations with dictatorial Cuba is less about trying to achieve fundamental change on the island than it is an ephemeral effort at “legacy-burnishing” (not to mention sating a noisy gaggle of Castroite groupies, professional Latin Americanists, and a sympathetic media commentariat who have been clamoring for a unilateral change in policy for years).

The glibness of the entire effort is betrayed by the fact that the Castro regime made no concession, no major reciprocal announcement, no recognition of U.S. concerns on democracy and human rights that have divided the two countries for 50 years, to warrant the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and a host of modifications to travel and economic ties to the island. (The full embargo is off the table, since it can only be lifted by an act of Congress. Forget about the happening anytime soon.)

What the rationale for the about-face in policy basically comes down to is: I’m doing it because I can. Can anyone remember another president who made a major policy decision basically saying, “Let’s just try it and see what happens?”

In his televised speech, the president said all the right things about seeking to empower Cuban citizens and defending human rights, but that is hardly going to impress the Castro regime. Occupying the moral high ground in speeches is one thing, thinking it is enough to sustain an engagement policy with a despotic regime like Cuba’s is the height of folly. This is a regime that hasn’t made a compromise in some 50 years; it is unlikely to start now.

Believers in the president’s approach think that the policy changes can put the United States in the driver’s seat, and that bureaucrats in Washington will be able to direct and manage this array of different initiatives into a satisfying whole that somehow puts the regime on the defensive. But, again, this is simply wishful thinking. The Castro regime has survived for five decades because its will to maintain control has always far exceeded any U.S. will (such as it ever existed) to get rid of the regime. With everything else collapsing around it, its capacity to repress, co-opt, and block any initiative designed to undermine its domination of the country remains firmly entrenched.

There is also a whiff of hypocrisy surrounding this Cuba about-face. Critics of U.S.-Cuba policy now basking in the president’s announcement also derided the Bush administration’s approach as one of “regime change.” But what is the “empowerment” of Cubans under this new effort supposed to lead to if not a fundamental (read: regime) change in Cuba? Otherwise, why do it?

But neither is this rapprochement effort meaningless, otherwise to be consigned to the dustbin of history along with similar misguided Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Clinton efforts. It has important strategic implications. Mendicant Cuba has always succeeded in enlisting a foreign dupe to bankroll their dysfunctional economy. First it was the Soviet Union, and then Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela; but with the latter now facing its own implosion due to falling oil prices, the Castro regime has been looking for a new lifeline. Enter the Obama administration.

Now, we are not talking about full-blown economic ties or foreign aid. But the regime, as is painfully evident, doesn’t need much to survive. Every U.S. dollar now flowing into Cuba is one less dollar the regime needs to worry about to keep their citizens’ heads above water. And the president’s actions have just opened the spigot further, even as Venezuelan aid continues to falter. Somewhere, Cuba’s geriatric generals are chuckling.

Restoring diplomatic relations with the last military dictatorship in the Americas has been something administration ideologues and careerists within the State Department have been aching for now for six years. But the barking dog has now caught the car and it must figure out what to do with it. In other words, the burden has now shifted over to the critics’ side to prove their approach can succeed where others have failed. When dealing with the Castro regime, that is not a position to be envied.

Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.