Even if it's Obama saying it, the time has come to try something new with Cuba

First of all, thank you for joining me in this post. Before we get started, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll just take a moment to slip on this full body, asbestos blast suit. It seems worth the time to do so, since I still believe that this is a forum where we can air opinions from across the spectrum and give them a fair hearing.

As you could already surmise, after watching the events surrounding the Cuba announcement unfold today and having had time to reflect on this news, I’ve come to a slightly different conclusion than the rest of the writers here. But to get to that point, it would be unfair to skip over some of the prologue. The subject of Cuba and America’s relationship to the island nation is one which has come up regularly over the years. I have not ignored the volumes of information available regarding the history of the current government there stretching back to just about the time I was born.

Much of what I’ve picked up on this over recent years has come not only from discussions with my colleagues here, but from Fausta Wertz of Fausta’s Blog, and she’s been writing up a storm on the subject today. Criticism of the Cuban government is wide ranging and entirely justified, as she has described to me many times. The Castro family is beyond awful… evil being a far better word. The power structure they have established mimics many of the worst dictatorships in modern history. Their communist party keeps their people in ignorant oppression, depriving them not only of necessary freedoms, but of information and even basic human needs in terms of food, shelter and medical care. They jail, torture and kill those who so much as speak out against them, and many citizens simply disappear, never to be seen again. What good living there is to be had in Cuba is reserved for the party members who keep the Castro family in power.

But one of several arguments which supporters of the President’s actions have pointed out repeatedly today cannot be ignored. I could take the above paragraph and substitute the word China for Cuba and it would remain precisely as true. The major differences between the two are that China is vastly more powerful, more dangerous and more influential. Their human rights record is, if anything, worse than Cuba’s. They can threaten the entire globe with a single move, where the Castros are generally limited to smaller evils and mischief in South America. And yet somehow we have established relations with China. This doesn’t excuse either country for their evil, but only serves to point out some of the harsh realities of foreign policy in the modern era.

Noah has noted, quite correctly, that trading diplomatic status for hostages sends a terrible signal. I agree, but bad signals are more common these days than stop lights. And was that really the basis of the deal? We had a prisoner swap, trading three absolutely horrible people who undoubtedly did not deserve release for our hostage, Alan Gross, and a Cuban national spy who assisted us many years ago and has been in jail ever since. It’s an ugly business to be sure, but diplomacy has been built on worse trades in the past.

Perhaps, in the end, the biggest question to wrestle with does not center on the specifics of the deal at all, but the question of whether or not there should have been any normalization of relations with Cuba in the first place. I can tell from the comments in previous articles that the vast majority of you agree that this should never even have been considered. It’s clearly how Jeb Bush feels. For that matter, Marco Rubio was shouting from the rooftops to anyone who would listen and even calling out The Pope over it. But that brings me to another of those nagging questions which have been coming up all day.

In terms of our long term future with Cuba, what else are we supposed to do?

It’s been a half century now. Unless and until someone can show me something besides political talking points to the contrary, the embargo was simply not working. The Castros remain in power and the government has not significantly changed. And as we have repeatedly demonstrated in our negotiations regarding sanctions and punishment of other nations such as Iran, Iraq or Russia, sanctions and embargoes do not work unless you can get significant buy-in from your allies. Nobody is joining us on this. Canadians regularly vacation in Cuba. Nearly every other western nation trades with them. We simply don’t have any backup here. As Marco Rubio ironically pointed out during his passionate rebuttal, the only effective embargo on the citizens of Cuba has been imposed by the Castro government. Even if we had been dumping massive largesse into the country, they would most likely have kept it for themselves. Whether we continued the embargo or not, the end result would have been no net change for the rank and file Cubans absent some downward pressure on the ruling class to treat them better.

Fausta and with others have made the claim that, with Venezuela in trouble – possibly teetering – due to oil prices, Cuba might crumble if they go down. But I’m sorry to say that Cuba has struggled on through worse and I simply can’t believe that this was the final tipping point and we just barely missed it because of Obama.

Will things get better for the Cubans in the wake of normalized relations with the United States? We have no way of knowing. Perhaps more money and more people flowing in to the island will help some of them out. Perhaps more outside contact will spur local discussions and help nudge the public further toward a more freedom oriented agenda. The government might make good and begin allowing a bit more internet access so they can be exposed to the world at large. And once the elder Castro presence has gone to the grave, it’s conceivable that the younger communists running the party might see the possible benefits of giving a little to get a little. Perhaps not. But what we’ve been doing since Kennedy was President hasn’t panned out, and claiming that things might have suddenly gotten better without a change requires proving a hypothetical.

I’m not thrilled about it, and I’m not optimistic. But it’s long been my belief that our previous policy has been an exercise in futility and I can’t see it getting that much worse by trying something new. Most of the immediate fallout in the United States will come in the form a political tsunami in Florida, as Ed pointed out earlier. It will likely weigh heavily on the 2016 elections. But while interesting to those of us in the political observation class, that doesn’t do much for the people of Cuba or our long term relationship with a nation less than one hundred miles off our shore.

I rarely find reason to agree with Barack Obama, nor cause to hope that his frequently ill advised plans will produce productive results. In this one case, though, I have to find some small sliver of hope that most of the people discussing this from the opposition side prove to be wrong and the President somehow strikes upon a way to improve things in the Americas. And as a consolation, I remind myself that even if it fails spectacularly, Cuba could hardly get all that much worse than it is now.

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David Strom 8:41 PM on January 30, 2023