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Cuba: Lessons Learned?

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Since August 2006, when Fidel Castro transferred power to his younger brother Raul, talk of “transition” has once again been at the forefront of discussions on U.S.-Cuba policy. For some, “transition” signifies a constitutional succession in Cuba; but for others, including the Bush Administration, true “transition” could only come with a regime change.

Despite these differences, one thing is certain: the power transfer in Cuba is official. With Raul Castro as the head of state in Cuba, the United States has an unprecedented opportunity to reconsider its policy toward the island. A new diplomatic strategy should take into account not only the shortcomings of current policy, but also the historical experiences of other “transitional” countries around the world.
The republics of the former Soviet Union provide us with some information about one model of transition. Today, we must urge our policy-makers to examine these lessons learned—both successes and failures—and apply them to a new model for U.S. policy toward Cuba, in order to ensure policy goals include engagement and respect for sovereignty.

Policy toward Cuba throughout the Cold War was geared toward isolation. The rationale for implementing a comprehensive economic embargo was dictated by the fear that the Cuban socioeconomic model would appeal to other Latin American countries. In light of the geopolitical environment of the Cold War, the fear of Cuba’s influence in the region, at least in part, explained a policy aimed at isolating the island from the United States, Latin America, and eventually the rest of the world.

At the end of the Cold War, geopolitics changed. The 1960 U.S.-Cuba policy is now even more outdated and irrelevant. The fear of Cuba’s model spilling over into other countries can hardly be termed a threat—though its example of standing up to the United States still appeals to developing nations. The rhetoric used to justify Cuba policy changed from fear of communism to support for democracy and human rights and thus the conditions demanded by Washington in order to normalize relations with Cuba also changed. From the 1960s and into the late 1980s, the key security issues outlined by the United States were Cuban troops in Africa, exporting revolution to Latin America, and Cuban military security ties with the Soviet Union. The resolution of these issues was considered a precondition for any alteration in existing policy. Today, these security concerns are irrelevant. Cuban troops are no longer active in Africa, Cuba is no longer engaged militarily in Latin America, and the Soviet Union no longer exists. Still the embargo stands.

In an October 2007 speech at the U.S. State Department, President Bush discussed his conditions for engagement with Cuba: “As long as the regime maintains its monopoly over the political and economic life of the Cuban people, the United States will keep the embargo in place.” He also stated: “To further that effort [to] break the hold of the regime, the United States is prepared to take new measures right now to help the Cuban people directly — but only if the Cuban regime, the ruling class, gets out of the way.” The word “freedom” has become the central concept in the latest policy justification. President Bush further articulated his understanding of freedom as freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom of the press, freedom to form political parties, freedom to change the government through periodic multiparty elections, and the release of all political prisoners.

Yet, these firm words from the president are only the latest in a series of demands for Cuba. The United States has demonstrated an uncanny ability to alter the conditions to which Cuba must adhere in order to gain favor and normalize relations. All the while, the United States has pressed forward with a policy of isolation. The future of relations seems likely to follow this same trend, even now that Fidel has resigned. Raul Castro is perceived by the administration as the same as his brother and statements by embargo supporters indicate that economic reforms Raul might institute would not alter their stance. In a panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research on January 15th, 2008, Nilda Pedrosa from the office of Senator Mel Martinez (R-FL) expressed her absolute disapproval of even considering economic engagement with Cuba without first seeing total political reform. Kristen Madison, of the U.S. Department of State, echoed Ms. Pedrosa’s sentiments by stating that the United States should only consider economic engagement with Cuba when it is possible to influence the island politically. President Bush’s October 2007 speech on Cuba policy flatly stated that no change will occur in Cuba policy, regardless of a change in power on the island or any economic reforms.

If the United States were truly interested in promoting democracy, freedom, and economic prosperity in Cuba–and not converting into policy a vendetta held by the hard-line faction of the Cuban-American community in south Florida as a pay-back for election favors—it would ease or lift the embargo and remove travel restrictions and allow the free exchange of ideas and people to occur.

The apparently seamless transfer of power from Fidel to Raul demonstrates the resilience of the Cuban system. This resilience flies in the face of U.S. policy, again proving the ineffectiveness of the half-century strategy for dealing with the island. Continued non-engagement is as detrimental to U.S. interests in Cuba today as it is detrimental to Cuban civil society—in whatever future Cuba chooses for itself.