Politics & Policy

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.

Let’s assume that any significant liberalization will occur only after Fidel’s death. Who are Cuba’s potential reformers? We must distinguish potential economic reformers from potential political reformers. The former group, says Eusebio Mujal-León, director of the Cuba XXI Project at Georgetown University, includes many senior military figures, while the latter consists of civilian technocrats. Writing in the Journal of Democracy, Mujal-León contends that the technocrats favor “deeper and faster economic reforms and might eventually become advocates of political liberalization.”

Before his demotion, Carlos Lage was the “most touted” of the reformist technocrats. It appears this group is losing influence. What about the armed forces? They play a huge role in managing Cuba’s economy and have grown more powerful since Raúl (who served as defense minister for decades) became president and established a collective leadership of civilian elites and military brass.

“While Raúl Castro may not be Deng Xiaoping,” Mujal-León writes, “there is plenty of evidence (including a month-long study trip to China that he took in 1997) that he is interested in the implementation of Chinese-style economic reforms.” Latell reckons that most top Cuban officials share Raúl’s desire to “cautiously liberalize the economy” in the manner of China or Vietnam. But Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban American and former Kellogg Company CEO who served as U.S. commerce secretary from 2005 to 2009, does not think Cuba will embrace the China model while Raúl is president. “I just don’t see it happening under Raúl,” Gutierrez told me late last year.

We may not know Raúl’s full intentions until after Fidel’s death. At that point, the embargo debate will really heat up. Of course, Raúl, who turns 78 next month, is only five years younger than his brother, and many Cuba analysts doubt he will be able to stay in power once Fidel dies. Either way, if the Cuban government won’t initiate real changes until Fidel is gone, that is an argument for keeping most of the U.S. embargo as a future source of diplomatic leverage — unless one believes that American trade and tourists could somehow catalyze liberalization in the face of government resistance.

That is possible, but not likely. The embargo was modified several years ago so that Cuba could receive U.S. agricultural exports, and the United States is now Cuba’s fifth-biggest trading partner. Even if the embargo were abolished entirely, Cuba severely limits foreign investment. The latest Index of Economic Freedom, compiled by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal, ranks Cuba 177th out of 179 economies surveyed, ahead of only Zimbabwe and North Korea.

As for tourism, European and Canadian tourists have been enjoying Cuba’s beaches and hotels for years. Has this sparked internal reforms? “European and Canadian governments would like to make that case, but I don’t believe there is any evidence to support it,” Peter Orr, a retired Foreign Service officer who served as Cuba coordinator at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) under President Clinton, told me in an e-mail. No surprise there: The Cuban tourism industry is dominated by the armed forces, and foreign tourists are generally isolated from ordinary Cubans. Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer, a shrewd observer of Cuban and Latin American affairs, dismisses the “U.S. tourists will bring democracy” claim as “wishful thinking.” He writes that the millions of European, Canadian, and Latin American tourists who have come to Cuba during the past decade have not had “any visible impact on the island’s totalitarian system.”

However, swimsuit-clad tourists seeking sun and rum are not the same as Cuban Americans visiting their relatives. Latell says that a surge of family visits could have a “profound” impact on Cuba, pointing to the “instability” that was caused by the tens of thousands of Cuban-American visitors who arrived between 1977, when President Carter eased the travel ban, and the 1980 Mariel Boatlift.

Orr also reckons that increased family travel will help Cuba’s pro-democracy activists. “Probably the biggest support for dissidents comes through the travel of Cuban Americans to the island,” he says. “The part of the USAID-funded program that is most effective in my view is largely dependent on the people-to-people contact that occurs through these visits. So, in effect, the Obama administration’s removing restrictions on this travel is the most supportive thing they could have done for the dissident movement in Cuba.”

When it comes to unraveling the embargo, Obama seems committed to a piecemeal strategy. “A progressive approach puts the potential reformists in the position of arguing internally for responses that might bring further favorable moves from the U.S,” says Orr. “But if the U.S. throws all its leverage away in one move” — that is, if it terminates the entire embargo unilaterally without requiring any concessions from Havana — “this is not an argument that reformists can use.”

The much-maligned Helms-Burton Act, signed by President Clinton in 1996, is often criticized for being a barrier to incremental diplomacy with Havana. And indeed, the law stipulates that Cuba must meet a host of benchmarks before the embargo can be lifted: Among other things, Cuba must release all political prisoners, disband certain state security forces, and promise to hold free elections. Helms-Burton also prohibits normalizing relations with any Cuban regime that includes either of Fidel or Raúl Castro.

Those are steep demands. But Orr insists that even within its strict limits, “Helms-Burton gives the president considerable latitude to take measures to promote democratic change in Cuba.” He adds: “In my view, Helms-Burton is not an impediment, at least for any moves the administration is likely to consider in a step-by-step approach to rapprochement.”

On the other hand, Orr believes that the U.S. government’s chief aim during any transitional period in Cuba will be, not to promote democracy, but rather to forestall a refugee crisis. The last one occurred in 1994, when nearly 40,000 Cubans were interdicted at sea by U.S. authorities. Future political turmoil on the island could trigger another migration frenzy, and vice versa. Latell calls this “a nightmare scenario for both Cuba and the United States.”

Even if Cuba avoids such a disaster, its transformation from a Communist dictatorship to a more liberal polity will be a difficult, frustrating ordeal, no matter when the U.S. embargo ends. In his 2003 book Cuba: The Morning After, American Enterprise Institute scholar Mark Falcoff notes that Cuba faces a looming demographic crunch: It has a low birth rate, high levels of youth emigration, and a large number of elderly. “By 2025,” Falcoff writes, “the country will have one of the oldest populations in the world. Meanwhile, Cuba’s pension system is virtually bankrupt. This portends a major social crisis that no government, regardless of its ideology, will find easy to resolve.”

Cuba has racked up a massive external debt, and its economy suffers from low productivity rates. Food shortages and paltry wages are persistent problems. According to Mujal-León, close to 85 percent of Cuba’s food is imported, and official data show that land under cultivation in Cuba dropped by one-third between 1998 and 2007. The country depends heavily on oil subsidies from Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s leftist president.

Moving forward, we can expect greater friction and disharmony among senior Cuban officials. The infighting will almost certainly increase after Fidel and Raúl leave the scene. “In the absence of the Castro brothers,” writes Mujal-León, “internecine conflicts within the ruling coalition are far more likely.” American policymakers should attempt to boost the standing of potential Cuban reformers and incentivize liberalization. “Creating a U.S. posture of flexibility is bound to encourage an environment in which the rank and file will more seriously and openly question any lack of flexibility on the part of the hardliners in control,” says Orr.

The demise of U.S. sanctions against Cuba will likely be a gradual process. As Gary Maybarduk, a career Foreign Service officer who served at the U.S. mission in Havana from 1997 to 1999, has written, “The president already has the authority to lift the embargo in piecemeal steps. He can use that authority to reward good Cuban behavior.” Scrapping the embargo won’t solve Cuba’s long-term problems; only broad, systemic reforms can do that. Unfortunately, Fidel Castro has made clear that such reforms will have to wait until after his death.

– Duncan Currie is deputy managing editor of National Review Online.

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