Back on January 1, 1959, Fidel Castro successfully overthrew the regime of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba and installed his own government. People tend to forget that one of the main reasons Castro was successful was that Batista was generally despised by his own people. As a result, most of the cities held by Batista’s forces were abandoned to Castro without a fight.
Unfortunately, like with the revolutions in Russia and France and many other countries, the new governments after the revolutions are often worse than the old ones. In many ways that was true in Cuba.
Of course our country’s government was opposed to Castro’s government from the start, and has been consistently opposed to it ever since. But our decades-long embargo has not punished Castro or his government – he himself is financially doing just fine, thank you very much. In fact that policy, which is aimed at deposing Castro, has been so “successful” that he is now the longest-reigning head of state in the world! But unfortunately our embargo does continue to punish the Cuban people. Accordingly, it is long since time to change our policy and normalize our relationships with Cuba.
Today the United States is virtually the only country in the world that persists in the economic embargo of Cuba. Big tour ships from Brazil, Canada and many countries in Europe regularly make stops in Havana, and Cuban cigars and other products are widely available in commercial markets in virtually all other countries but ours. And, ironically enough, our dollars are the de facto currency in Cuba for most non-governmental transactions.
We dissolved our trade and travel embargos on China in 1979 and Vietnam in 1995. Why? Because as a practical matter we decided that bringing these nations into the mainstream of the global economy would at least moderate their regimes and maybe even nudge them toward democracy. In doing so we realized that the best ambassadors for our institutions and our way of life are the free flow of goods, services, people and ideas between our country and theirs.
As a direct of that enlightened policy, China is far more free today both economically and socially than it was when we re-established relations, and it has even become a host of the Olympic Games. And although Vietnam still has a long way to go in human rights issues, its government has loosened its grip on power in many economic areas. In other words, our policies have helped the people of China and Vietnam to improve their economic conditions and also increase their freedoms. Can anyone truly believe that an embargo would have produced positive results like these?
And speaking of freedom, should not the freedom of the people in our country to travel to and trade with Cuba also be considered? In addition to the human issues, does not the fact that our merchants lose billions of dollars because they are prohibited from trading with countries like Cuba count for something?
So why do we not adopt the same approach with Cuba that we successfully used with China and Vietnam? Why instead do we continue to play the part of the bully and continue to punish the people of that small island country?
Regretfully, the answer to both of these questions is naked presidential politics. Florida is a critically important state in presidential elections, and hard-line Cuban-Americans who hate Castro are still a powerful political force in Florida. In many ways they have cause for this hate, since Castro literally stole much of their property and instituted quite a repressive regime on them and their relatives. But that was a long time ago.
The reality today is that, since most Cubans have little access to any information other than that fed to them by their national media, Castro is still seen as a hero for being the underdog that refuses to yield to a powerful and arrogant foreign government. As for the dismal failure of their economy, most Cubans to this day blame their woes on our government because of the embargo. As a result, even when Castro is gone, the chance of any regime taking power in Cuba that is supported by our government is small.
On the other hand, look at what happened when China, for its own reasons, liberalized travel restrictions and allowed millions of Chinese people who live in Taiwan to go back to visit their families and friends on the mainland. During their many discussions, the Taiwanese rightfully pointed out to anyone that would listen that they all had the same background and culture, so why were the Taiwanese 25 times richer in their free and open system than the mainlanders were in their controlled one? These interactions have had an enormous influence upon the liberalization of the life in China. In other words, showing off the “subversive power of freedom” demonstrably has worked! And it will work in Cuba as well!
So let us contact our representatives in the federal government and strongly encourage them to abandon our unilateral embargo on Cuba and lift all travel and trade restrictions between our countries. In fact, we should make it an issue in the upcoming elections. Not only will this different approach hold out the promise of more successful change in Cuba, but it will also increase our standing in the eyes of the rest of the world. And along the way it will also take away from Fidel Castro a convenient scapegoat for his own mismanagement.
Besides, it is also the right thing to do.
Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)