First, a couple of disclaimers: The human rights situation in Cuba still sucks, and Castro still is a reprehensible leader.
That all being said, its time to try a different policy vis a vis Cuba. While the strict embargo of all things and all people back and forth to Cuba may well have been appropriate in the 1960's to make sure Cuba and the world understood our displeasure with Castro, its not working for us now. Forty-five or so years later, nothing has really changed in Cuba. Heck, that's more years than the Cold War with Russia lasted. And, since the economic blockade has become pretty much unilateral, with the US about the only country in the world still observing it, its hard to see Castro throwing up the white flag any time soon.
The US has made its point -- we think Castro is a brutal totalitarian. Castro has made his point -- Cuba is not going to fall based on US economic pressure. Its time to try engagement. This does not mean that the US sanction the human rights situation in Cuba. It does mean that we acknowledge that engagement with western ideas through trade and commerce have done more to liberalize countries like China, India, and southeast Asia than any other policy we have tried.
Fareed Zakaria has a nice article in the International Edition of Newsweek advocating just this approach, not just in Cuba, but all over the world:
For almost five decades the United States has
put in place a series of costly policies designed to force Cuba to
dismantle its communist system. These policies have failed totally.
Contrast this with Vietnam, also communist, where Washington has
adopted a different approach, normalizing relations with its former
enemy. While Vietnam remains a Leninist regime in many ways, it has
opened up its society, and the government has loosened its grip on
power, certainly far more than that of Fidel Castro. For the average
person in Libya or Vietnam, American policy has improved his or her
life and life chances. For the average person in Iran or Cuba, U.S.
policy has produced decades of isolation and economic hardship.
get me wrong. I think the regimes in Tehran and Havana are ugly and
deserve to pass into the night. But do our policies actually make that
more likely? Washington has a simple solution to most governments it
doesn't like: isolate them, slap sanctions on them and wait for their
Critics could argue that I'm forgetting the many surprising places
where regimes have fallen and freedom has been given a chance to
flourish. Who would have predicted that Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan
would see so much change in the past year and a half? But these
examples only prove my point. The United States had no "regime change"
policy toward any of these countries, and it had relations with all of
them. In fact, these relationships helped push the regimes to change
and emboldened civil-society groups.
Ah, you might say, but these regimes were not truly evil. Well, what
about Mao's China at the height of the Cultural Revolution? Nixon and
Kissinger opened relations with what was arguably the most brutal
regime in the world at the time. And as a consequence of that opening,
China today is far more free"”economically and socially"”than it has ever
been. If we were trying to help the Chinese people, would isolation
have been a better policy?
For years I think we feared to normalize relations with Cuba because we were afraid of looking weak; however, today, after kicking regimes out of Afghanistan and Iraq and threatening four or five others, I am not sure this is a concern. Besides, we are normalizing relations with Vietnam, who we actually fought a war against and who are at least as bad at human rights as Cuba.
I fear that what may be preventing a new policy with Cuba is the electoral college. Or, more specifically, the crucial status of Florida as a tightly-contested presidential election swing state and the perception (reality?) that there is a large high-profile Cuban population in Florida that opposes normalization, at least as long as Castro can still fog a mirror.