Hard-Line Lunacy on Cuba

By Eugene Robinson (THE WASHINGTON POST, 31/05/08):

For nearly five decades, the United States has pursued a policy toward Cuba that could be described as incredibly stupid.

It could also be called childish and counterproductive — and, since the demise of the Soviet Union, even insane. Absent the threat of communist expansionism, the refusal by successive American presidents to engage with Cuba has not even a fig leaf’s worth of rationale to cover its naked illogic. Other than providing Fidel Castro with a convenient antagonist to help whip up nationalist fervor on the island — and prolong his rule — the U.S. trade embargo and other sanctions have accomplished nothing.

Now, with Fidel ailing and retired, and his brother Raúl acting large and in charge, the United States has its best opportunity in years to influence the course of events on the island. George W. Bush, as one might have expected, won’t do the right thing. It will be up to the next president.

Raúl Castro is 76, and since assuming the presidency he has acted as if he knows he doesn’t have much time to waste. In short order, he has repealed the prohibition against Cubans buying computers, cellphones and other consumer goods — items that Fidel feared might facilitate sedition or promote counterrevolutionary comfort and lassitude.

It’s true that these measures are largely symbolic — on an average salary of about $17 a month, most Cubans can’t dream of buying computers, and, in any event, the Cuban government still strictly controls access to the Internet. Likewise, any Cuban who owns a cellphone can’t use it without paying the astronomical rates demanded by the government cellphone monopoly.

But at the same time, Raúl has encouraged the first stirrings of debate in the government-controlled media (which are the only media) — something Fidel never would have allowed. Rumors that the government will soon permit widespread private ownership of automobiles, and perhaps even allow an above-board private market in real estate, seem much less implausible than they would have just six months ago.

I’ve been to Cuba as a journalist 10 times, and friends there — including some harsh critics of the Castro regime — say that there is real optimism about the prospects for change.

Bush’s response has been a cold shoulder. In remarks a few days ago, the president did little but state the obvious fact that Raúl Castro is not, and never will be, a believer in democracy. He dismissed the recent measures as “empty gestures at reform,” and then made an empty gesture of his own: He said he would change U.S. policy to allow Cuban Americans to send cellphones to their relatives on the island, something many families already do.

Raúl Castro is not going to transform Cuba into a free-market democracy. But he gives every indication of moving down the path that China’s leadership has taken, toward making his country a free-market, one-party autocracy. That’s not a perfect outcome, as shown by recent events in Tibet. But it’s impossible to deny that the Chinese people enjoy far greater personal freedom than they did, say, 20 years ago. Why wouldn’t Washington want to encourage Havana to become more like Beijing?

That would require actual engagement with the Cuban government, though, and Bush doesn’t intend to allow anything of the sort.

Barack Obama appeared before the Cuban American National Foundation — one of the most powerful and most strident of the Miami-based anti-Castro groups — May 23 and said that if he were president, he would conduct “direct diplomacy” with Cuba’s leadership. Earlier last week, John McCain essentially vowed to continue Bush’s hard-line course.

Obama’s into-the-lion’s-den performance may win him some points for bravery, but it may not get him a lot of votes in South Florida. He has the right idea, however. The United States can attempt to influence any changes that eventually take place in Cuba, or it can harrumph from the sidelines. Several of Cuba’s leading dissidents have urged the White House to end the decades-old trade embargo and the draconian restrictions on travel to the island. Bush pays no attention to those on the front lines of this struggle.

Stubbornly sticking with a policy that has achieved nothing in nearly 50 years is a pretty good definition of insanity.