Cuba Without Illusions
Is it really time to scrap the embargo?


Opponents of the 47-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba paint it as anachronistic and counterproductive. Supporters argue that it remains an important bargaining chip and a vital tool for promoting Cuban democracy. Now Pres. Barack Obama has reinvigorated the embargo debate, expressing his desire for “a new beginning with Cuba” and loosening various sanctions, including restrictions on family travel and remittances to the island.

As the debate proceeds, several questions should be at the forefront. For starters: Who is really calling the shots in Havana? During a long, rambling speech in Venezuela on April 16, Cuban president Raúl Castro said his government was prepared to discuss “everything” with the United States, including “human rights,” “freedom of the press,” and “political prisoners.” Obama said these remarks were “a sign of progress.” Then, before things got too chummy, Fidel Castro intervened. He wrote that Obama had “misinterpreted Raúl’s declarations.” The elder Castro demanded that Obama immediately lift the whole embargo, suggesting that Cuba would not make any concessions in return for the recent U.S. policy changes. Raúl got the message. On April 29, he told a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement that “it is not Cuba who has to make gestures.” As the Associated Press reported, Raúl indicated that “the Communist government is not willing to appease Washington by embracing small political and social reforms on the island.”

Brian Latell, a former Cuba analyst at the CIA and author of the 2005 book After Fidel, says the younger Castro was “chastened” and “humiliated” by Fidel’s rebuke. “There could be an emerging crisis in the Cuban leadership,” he adds, now that “Fidel is back making all key foreign-policy decisions.” Indeed, Latell predicts that the Cuban leadership could be headed for its worst instability since 1989, when a popular, highly decorated general named Arnaldo Ochoa was executed for treason.

Earlier this year, more than 20 Cuban officials were shuffled around in a massive governmental reorganization. The two most prominent figures to receive demotions were Carlos Lage, a vice president, and Felipe Pérez Roque, the foreign minister. Lage was considered an economic reformer; he oversaw a bevy of market-oriented initiatives during the 1990s. Pérez Roque, by contrast, was viewed as a hardliner and a sycophantic Fidelista. Both are much younger than Cuba’s aging revolutionary generation: Lage is 57 and Pérez Roque 44.

Why were they sacked? When the news first broke, speculation abounded. On April 6, New York Times correspondent Ian Urbina offered a possible explanation: Cuban intelligence had obtained audio recordings of the two men making derogatory comments about Fidel, Raúl, and other government bigwigs while in private.

“Lage’s star has been fading for at least a year,” says Latell, who now works as a senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. “The economic reformers are in retreat.” Fidel has reasserted himself as Cuba’s supreme leader and ruled out major political or economic changes while he is alive. “Fidel is absolutely entrenched,” Latell says. “He’s not willing to make any concessions at all to Obama.”

When Fidel became ill in mid-2006, Raúl took over as interim president and hinted that some degree of economic liberalization was on the way. (He officially succeeded Fidel in February 2008.) The Raúl-led government introduced a raft of small reforms — such as beginning to decentralize agriculture and allowing Cubans to purchase various consumer electronic products — that had a meager economic impact but raised expectations on the island. As Daniel Erikson, a scholar at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank, writes in his new book, The Cuba Wars, Raúl unleashed a relatively robust debate about possible economic reforms, which the Communist youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde characterized as a “revolution within the revolution.” Now Fidel has effectively squashed that revolution and Raúl has dialed back his reform talk.


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