Last week's blockbuster announcement from President Barack Obama that the United States will liberalize relations with Cuba has drawn passionate reactions. The New York Times cheered a "bold move that [will end] one of the most misguided chapters in American foreign policy," while Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, the son of Cuban émigrés, thundered that the deal "won't lead to freedom and liberty for the Cuban people, which is my sole interest here."
The senator went further. "Barack Obama is the worst negotiator that we've had as president since at least Jimmy Carter, and maybe in the modern history of the country," said the likely presidential contender late last weekend. To be sure, there's a strong case, to back Senator Rubio's assertion. President Obama is essentially giving away the store for nothing: The United States will restore diplomatic relations and - crucially - ramp up economic relations between the two countries, without demanding fundamental changes to Cuba's political or economic system in return. (Indeed, shortly after President Obama's announcement, Cuban President Raul Castro reaffirmed that his country will, alas, remain communist.) In this sense, as others have pointed out, President Obama has set a troubling precedent for negotiations with the likes of North Korea, the Taliban, and especially Iran.
Yet Cuba's case stands alone. For one, it's been a long time since the dilapidated Caribbean nation, set 90 miles south of the United States, has presented any threat to the United States or her allies. And there are several reasons to think that increased contact between the United States and Cuba could in fact spur the downfall of the odious Havana regime. Senator Rubio, then, may be quite wrong.
For starters, the Castros will have a hard time now blaming the U.S. embargo for Cuba's myriad failures. Cuba's per capita GDP stands at a pitiful $6,000 a year. Why? Blame the American embargo, of course, says the Castro regime - pay no mind to the failures of Cuban socialism. Ditto for Cuba's crumbling buildings and its unreliable electricity supply - all of this can be conveniently blamed on Washington with its dastardly embargo. Even today, more than 50 years after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, Cuba's official state-run media fulminates against a U.S. government that it claims is conspiring to overthrow the regime and turn Cuba into a vassal state. Now that President Obama has moved to relax the embargo, the Castro dictatorship will lose its favorite excuse for failure.
It's also easy to imagine that as soon as Cuban workers in hotels, restaurants, and transportation services come in contact with corpulent American tourists touting iPads, iPhones, and fat wallets stuffed with U.S. dollars, they will quickly tire of the socialist system they labor under. It's difficult to imagine a sclerotic Havana regime surviving a torrent of greenbacks. (Indeed, that is why Pyongyang keeps its few foreign tourists on such a tight leash - North Korea doesn't want its citizens to see how people in other countries live.) Communist dictatorships only survive as long as the people living under them remain ignorant of how the rest of the world gets on. As Republican Senator Rand Paul, who supports relaxing the embargo, put it in an op-ed in Time, "once trade is enhanced with Cuba, it will be impossible to hide the bounty that freedom provides." Thus, Havana either must open up its economy, like China did, or risk collapsing like the Soviet Union. Either outcome would be a happy one for Washington and would represent a serious improvement over current conditions.
It's also encouraging that Cuba was pushed into American arms thanks to the rapidly declining state of its chief patron, Venezuela. For years, Havana has floated along top of a steady stream of heavily discounted oil from Caracas. But with crude oil prices tumbling, Venezuela is in no position to bail out Cuba anymore. Indeed, Venezuela looks likely to default soon. Ideological allies they may be, but Caracas simply no longer has the resources to help its client in Havana. This is what has pushed Cuba toward the United States. Indeed, Havana approaches Washington from a position of weakness. President Obama should take the opportunity presented by a more pliant Cuba to press for political and economic reforms. (Though, sadly, nothing about his record to date leads one to believe that he will do so.) He could offer the Cubans more trade in return for freeing political prisoners (there are still thousands in Cuba), for example, or for liberalizing its economy.
Another benefit of this policy is that it will greatly improve the United States' image throughout Latin America. Even Cuba's ideological foes have long opposed the U.S. embargo. President Obama's move shows that the United States is paying attention to what allies to its south are asking for. This is no small thing, as the United States and China are engaged in a great competition for "soft power" throughout Latin America.
The Cuban embargo simply hasn't worked. Relaxing it is not a give-away to the Castro regime. Indeed, jettisoning the embargo may be just the way to bring down the Castros once and for all.