At long last, Cuba is no longer a foreign policy problem for the United States, but rather a domestic policy issue.
President Barack Obama revisited the strategy of his predecessor Richard Nixon and opened up a pathway to the normalization of relations with the island. The long term stated objective is the democratization of Cuba, although democratization could hardly have been a foreign policy objective for the Nixon trip to Beijing.
In the case of Cuba, the re-establishment of diplomatic relations is something that had to be done, truly a breath of fresh air after a stalemate that lasted far too long. If the hidden purpose by Obama is indeed that of bringing about peaceful regime change in Cuba, the main element of the hoped for change on the island is the simple fact that the old leaders in Havana will no longer be able to attribute the destitute economic conditions to the embargo and American hostility. There is no such thing as an impending threat from the colossus to the North.
Democracy is the greatest motivator for the economic growth of a nation, but not necessarily the sine qua non condition. China and Vietnam are two examples of countries that have developed their economic potential without satisfying any of the requisites of a modern enlightened democracy. There is another important difference between Cuba under the Castros and the Peoples Republic: China is ruled by people who have no revolutionary roots while the geriatric leadership in Cuba, the offspring of the revolution of 1959, is still ruling the country. What makes the present opening to Cuba a smart move is that the day is not far when there will be a natural regime change. The question is: will the Cubans rise up and seize the opportunity?
Having reported from Cuba on two occasions, the first time in the 1960s, I doubt that the same Cubans who did not rise up when an invasion was launched in April 1961 will try to reach power soon enough with an action comparable to an uprising. The military structure that controls the Socialist regime of the island will not yield power so easily.
The anti-Castro leaders are certainly entitled to oppose what is the longest living dictatorship in Latin America by speaking out against “appeasement.” The problem is that such leaders – in particular Sen. Marco Rubio whose presidential ambitions are far too big for his britches – do not envision and do not take into account the dramatic changes that will be unleashed by the end of the U.S.-Cuba stalemate.
The United States will re-enter Cuba not with a bridgehead of Marines (which is what the Miami Cubans always wanted) but with the massive peaceful force of its economy, social media, communications and millions of tourists. To be true, there are already large numbers of American tourists in Cuba. The new chapter will make it possible for them to use credit and debit cards, to spend outlandish sums in the Cuban hotels, beaches and a bonanza of Cuban rum and cigars. And they probably will buy up and export many of the 1950s American automobiles that the Cubans have ingeniously maintained all these years.
Americans will flock to Cuba, a country that for a long time had been an appendix of the United States. History has a way of restoring old relationships and while Americans had good reasons to isolate Cuba while it presented a security threat to the United States by being an ally of the Soviet Union, the strategic picture in the 21st century is quite different.
Cuba is an international basket case, kept on life support by Venezuelan oil and the euros of European tourists. The Castros can no longer use American hostility and the embargo as an excuse for the dismal state of their economy and the suppression of human rights. In the U.S., there is no longer the need for Republican Party stalwarts to look tough against Cuba in order to secure the votes of the Florida Cuban electorate. The climate of resentment toward Cuba, kept alive by the Cuban-Americans in that state and a Congress hostage to that lobby, has in large part dissolved. Even the new generation of Cuban Americans does not pay lip service to the outdated policy of embargo. Officially, however, this policy still stands.
Moving forward to normal diplomatic relations and to an open interchange with Cuba is now at the center of a developing national debate. The Cuban Democracy Act, passed in 1992 by Congress, codified the 1962 embargo prohibiting foreign-based subsidiaries of U.S. companies from trading with Cuba, travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens and even family remittances to Cuba. For sure, there is no way that Cuban Americans in Florida can continue to harbor a dream over overthrowing Castro and returning the island to where it was when they left it. The embargo has not weakened the Castro regime and in fact has been counterproductive.
No less significant, the United States can now regain a measure of respectability around the world by abandoning the embargo. The General Assembly of the United Nations has voted down repeatedly the embargo that in 2008 found only three countries in favor: the U.S., Israel (the beneficiary of the American vetoes against any proposal to condemn the Israeli occupation in Palestine), and the tiny Pacific island of Palau. Finally, this time there is an important factor at work for peace and normalization between the United States and Cuba: Pope Francis, who was active behind the scenes in the secret diplomatic negotiations conducted through the Canadian government.
Will the progress of peace and accommodation make it through the U.S. Congress, when proposals to cancel the embargo will be brought to the floor? The normalization in Cuba will proceed with small steps at first as restrictions on trade, banking, travel, Internet and international exchanges are gradually lifted to benefit the Cuban population. This may be denounced by some in Florida and in Congress as a victory for the Castros rather than the people in Cuba, were it not for the fact that the United States will soon be in a position to influence small steps in Cuba as the building blocks of a democratization process.
The biggest problem in promoting democracy is education. In Cuba, 11 million people have been repressed, brainwashed and isolated for 55 years. Educating them, especially the young, to democracy will take time.
Lastly, a forward-looking political calculation that comes to mind is that the opening was called for now rather than later for the precise reason that the two brothers are not going to be around much longer. The winds of change should start to blow softly just like a gentle Caribbean breeze that brings the promise of better times.