Cuba: what's next?

Cuba: What happens next

Cuba remains one of the few nominally “Communist” states in the world. Government stores seem caught in a 1950s time-warp. Billboards extol the virtues of socialism. “La Revolution Marcha Bien” – “The Revolution is Going Well”, they assure us.

Yet, at the airport, immigration officials do not give my US passport a second glance.

In Havana, a hip new restaurant stands next to every government-owned cafeteria. Every other house hosts a casa particulare – essentially a small bed and breakfast. For sale signs adorn buildings like cheap Christmas ornaments. Most shocking of all? Cubans speak openly about the failures of the Castros and the Cuban government.

Entrepreneurial hustle and critical discussion are ubiquitous. The secret police? Not so much.

Depictions of Che are omnipresent.

Depictions of Che are omnipresent.

What changed?

In 2008, Fidel finally resigned and ceded power to his brother Raul, who promised to ease government restrictions. He also claimed he would resign in 2018 and implement term limits.

Raul announced numerous economic changes, including allowing increased private sector employment, the ability to sell homes and cars, and relaxed regulations on B&Bs and restaurants. 181 professions from hairdresser to farmer could now manage independent businesses instead of work for the government. Freedom of speech remains restricted, but some political prisoners have been released.

Internet access, while expensive, is available. Every city hosts at least one internet café. One Cuban reports that after Obama’s announcement, he could finally download WhatsApp after years of unsuccessful attempts. One of the primary goals of Obama’s policy is increasing communications access to Cuba by allowing US companies to make investments and provide equipment.

In 1997, contact between tourists and Cubans was illegal. In 2011, almost 3 million tourists visited Cub. Foreigners can travel anywhere and speak to anyone.

In 2013, Cuba ended the long-standing requirement for government permits for Cubans to travel abroad. In the first year of the program, over 180,000 left Cuba – and returned.

Casa particulare breakfast.

Casa particulare breakfast.

What do Americans think?

Although older Cuban exiles still support the embargo, the average Cuban-American feels quite differently. A 2004 survey found that 75% of Cuban-Americans consider the embargo ineffective. In 2014, for the first time, a poll of Cuban-Americans found that a majority favored ending the embargo. Young Cuban-Americans do not share their parents’ hardline views.

The general American population supports ending the embargo and travel restrictions in even greater numbers. A December 2014 poll found that 68% want to end the embargo and 74% want to end travel restrictions.

Yet, despite this, Congressional Republicans remain adamant on maintaining the embargo, led by a trio of Floridian Cuban-American representatives. Soon after Obama’s announcement, Republicans began searching for ways to block the move – considering options like defunding a US embassy in Cuba or refusing to confirm an ambassador.

Representative Ros-Lehtinen, the most senior of the trio, said that Obama’s moves “destroy the dreams of millions of Cubans who waited half a century for their liberty.” Marco Rubio went on to say Obama was “constantly giving unilateral concessions in exchange for nothing.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell admitted to not having thought about Cuba, but said he was confident that Marco Rubio knew what he was talking about.

Although the majority of both Americans and Cuban-Americans want the embargo lifted, Congressional Republicans seem willing to do anything to maintain it. A Cuban-American in Miami notes, “[Congressional Republicans] have spoken for narrow and entrenched interests in Miami that have not represented the Cuban-American community for some time. It’s time that they represent the rest of us.” Many expected throngs of protestors on the streets of Miami after the announcement, but only a few appeared, mostly to be interviewed for TV, perhaps the most visible sign of the changing mood of Cuban-Americans.

Young Cubans everywhere do not support the embargo.

Young Cubans everywhere do not support the embargo.

The Cuban view

The Cubans in Cuba – the ones most affected by the policy – feel quite strongly about the embargo – but certainly not in positive way. A long-term expat working in Havana tells me after Obama’s normalization announcement, “I’ve never seen Cubans as happy as this week. Everyone is smiling all the time. People are incredibly hopeful.”

One Cuban businessman explains, “We were so excited to hear the news. We have never had anything against the American people — it’s only governments and politicians who do not get along.”

A taxi driver compares the news to the fall of the Berlin Wall. When I ask him who the government will blame for economic problems if the embargo is lifted, he replies, “It won’t matter, because Cuba will have one of the best economies in Latin America.” He was certain economic openness would bring political openness. This was not the voice of a poorly educated idealist: the gentleman held two masters degrees in mechanical engineering. It was rather the voice of a Cuban, who like so many others, saw a broken system but a highly motivated and educated populace.

There is reason to believe he’s right – Cubans have managed to survive in the face of extreme adversity. This is a country that managed to maintain a life expectancy equal to the United States despite medical and food shortages and a per capita GDP one-tenth that of the US. It is easy to imagine Cubans could thrive given more resources.

The embargo is supposedly being upheld on behalf of the Cuban people, yet finding a single person in Cuba who supports the embargo proves nearly as difficult as finding a Walmart.

Streets of Trinidad.

Streets of Trinidad.

Progress or impasse

The embargo has neither worked in principle nor in practice. America embargoes Cuba – but not other more authoritarian countries. Fifty years of embargo produced neither regime change nor increased democracy. Deeming the policy ineffective seems generous. Characterizing it as an abject failure would be more apt.

Countries with closed economies are nine times more likely to suppress civil and political freedoms as those that are open. Countries like South Korea and Taiwan transitioned from autocracies to democracies in the last twenty years in tandem with growing trade and economic openness. Authoritarian/communist countries like China and Vietnam still lack full personal freedom, but the average citizen’s well-being has markedly improved. Embargoing Cuba impoverishes average Cubans while forcing American businesses to forego billions in potential trade.

Isolation does not work

If goods don’t cross borders, soldiers will. —Frédéric Bastiat

The rest of world calls the embargo a “dusty Cold War relic.” America is the only country in the Western Hemisphere to not have full diplomatic relations with Cuba. As Cuba seeks new trading partners, both Russia and China continue making overtures. Do we want to again cede influence in a country only ninety miles from our shore? It did not work so well the first time around.

Obama’s move is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, a full removal of the embargo seems unlikely in the near future. Thanks to the Helms-Burton bill signed into law by Clinton in 1996, any changes to the embargo must be made by Congress. Today’s Republican-controlled Congress seems unlikely to make this move – but rather seeks to derail Obama’s more limited executive action.

Lifting the embargo might not work. Progress will certainly take time. But fifty years of the same policy have not worked, so there is little risk in change. If nothing else, it eliminates the scapegoat the Cuban government has relied upon for decades.

Free travel and trade will open Cuba to people, goods, and ideas from America. It will help foster a true middle class in Cuba – one that will hopefully be instrumental in pushing for greater economic and political liberty.

Strolling the streets of Cienfuegos.

Strolling the streets of Cienfuegos.

America may not agree with all the Cuban government’s actions, but that does not mean we should eschew dialogue. It is time to stop allowing a small, aging group of bitter exiles in a swing state dictate American foreign policy and the future of eleven million Cubans.

Hopefully Americans will soon be able to freely visit a Cuba that maintains all its warmth and charm but none of its economic woes or political repression. The world needs more tourists and mojitos and fewer dictators and embargoes.

Note on visiting Cuba

On Jan 16, President Obama announced significant changes in US policy for Americans wishing to visit Cuba. While not lifting the ban, travel is now permissible as long as one self-certifies they are visiting for wide-ranging list of permitted purposes.


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