I understand the argument and the emotion of those who have believed in and continue to push for the tightest possible U.S. embargo on Cuba. Embargo believers see every dollar that goes into Cuba as enriching the repressive machinery of an autocratic government that intends to perpetuate itself in power. As a result, they all-too-often believe that those who argue for a liberalization of the embargo are somehow against human rights, as if it’s a zero sum game. (Support the embargo, you’re a freedom-loving American; believe that it may not be working, and you’re a Stalinist gone soft on the human rights abuses of leftist governments—or so their argument seems to go.)
But there is a middle ground.
True, there are many who spend more time railing against the embargo than they have speaking out against the same human rights abuses that would have driven them to the streets in defense of Chileans under Pinochet or Peruvians under Fujimori. And yes, the Obama administration trimmed its sails too often on human rights concerns in Cuba in an effort to keep its policy sailing along. (The President’s speech in Havana: brilliant. The President’s statement on Fidel Castro’s death: shameful.)
But the argument that embargo toughness is equal to human rights and political change is seriously and morally flawed on a number of levels, historical and logical.
In the end, any serious roll back of U.S. opening (and yes even travel) to Cuba will hurt human rights and the possibility of a peaceful transition to an open, democratic system in Cuba. Here’s why:
- It’s Not a Zero Sum Game: The argument that every dollar that goes into the island only benefits the government directly and weakens citizens is not only illogical it’s ahistorical. Many of the dollars to Cuba enrich individual Cubans running bed and breakfasts (paladares), driving taxis, independently growing and selling food products to hotels and hospitality services, or even opening pizza or ice cream shops. Do some of those dollars find their way into government coffers? Of course. But it’s indirect, and that circuitous route to the regime’s budget allows citizens to gain economic and political independence and, most important, gain a stake in a different future. Do some of these entrepreneurs represent the progeny of Cuban officials or families close to the government? Yes. But have you noticed the engines that drove political change in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union and Latin America? Let’s not romanticize these as revolutions of the masses (just as the American Revolution was not a revolution led by the masses); they were uprisings, in large part, of people of a certain status who were threatened by a perpetuation of a failing system—people of privilege who had gained a vision of and had a stake in a better future. In other words: stop denouncing all investment and activity and those who benefit. Untangle it and put it in historical context. Then figure out how to support some of the elements that make a difference. It’s not all the same.
- Either Way, the Military Will Benefit, and People Will Suffer: There is investment and collaboration with the military in Cuba, but not all of it benefits Cuba’s repressive machinery equally. Should U.S. businesses be engaging in co-investments with the Cuban military through Gaviota or through any of its other holding companies? That’s a legitimate question, because those investments and the profits go directly to an organization dedicated to repression. But there are other investments (like in communications), travel, and activities that do not directly benefit the government that are not so pernicious. Moreover, let’s be clear: Cuba is a repressive regime. Any revenue it gets—from remittances, U.S. government cash support to dissidents, Venezuelan oil, joint ventures with Gaviota, and, yes, even increased revenue from independent entrepreneurs—will find its way into the pockets of the Cuban regime. The majority of that hard currency one way or another will always find its way into the regime’s repressive machinery.
- Either Way Cuban Citizens Lose: Whether it’s $2 billion in state income or $1 billion in income, it doesn’t matter. The Cuban government will always give priority to funding the military and police. Does anyone really think there’s some moment at a high-level cabinet meeting in which Raúl Castro will say, “Look we didn’t earn as much as we expected this year, so we’re going to have to wipe out our rubber bullet, truncheon, electric cattle prod, and tear gas budget, and start putting fewer spies on the street. We can’t afford them any longer.” Of course not. Health care, food, education will always suffer. Leading to the obvious question: what’s the end-game here for embargo hardliners: to reduce repression (repressive regimes gotta repress, just like haters gotta hate) or bring a total and complete collapse of the state as a result of as-yet-unproven expectation of massive public protests? Which brings us to the final point.
- A Failed State 90 Miles South of the U.S. Is in No-One’s Interest: The end goal of embargo hardliners needs to be debated. Again, the models of the end of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union that many pro-embargo advocates like to hold up are not relevant. Poland, Czechoslovakia, South Africa… none of them was under as tight and smothering an embargo as many hope to return Cuba to. So, what’s the embargo advocates’ end goal? Again, I understand that it must be galling to imagine U.S. tourists traveling to Cuba under a corrupt, repressive regime. And having been in Cuba in November, I can attest that it was disgusting to watch U.S. tourists paw through Cuban Revolutionary memorabilia sold in Habana Vieja as if they were trinkets from a cute and innocent moment in history. (It was not.) And it made my stomach turn over to see U.S. tourists snap selfies of themselves cruising in 1950s cars cruising down the Malecon. (I’d love to see those same tourists go to a Cuba hospital and wave happily as they Instagram themselves with the cruelly out-of-date, under-funded—yet bizarrely still internationally heralded—health care system that (under)serves the vast majority of Cubans.) Yet, as disgusting as those selfies were, no Cuban is going to benefit from better health care because the U.S. clamps down on the embargo nor will they be likely to rise up to demand democracy. And the reason is simple: history and theory have demonstrated that change comes from a taste of prosperity and hope—yes even from the privileged—not from abject desperation and total isolation.
It appears that what many hardliners desire is a complete and total collapse of the Cuban regime that would bring it to its knees. And that’s not only cruel (to Cubans) and ahistorical (relative to Eastern Europe), it’s a threat to U.S. security. Cuba would be a strategic location for narco and human traffickers; the sort of Émile Durkheim-ian anomie that is the logical-end point of the collapse many hardliners are hoping for would create a stateless blackhole just off the coast off the United States. Is that what we all want, as a country, irrespective of our views on the nuances of U.S.-Cuba policy?
A range of positive channels of communication between U.S. citizens—including Cuban-Americans—and Cuban citizens have opened up over the past three years. And for the first time in decades Cuba has accepted visits from the UN and other international groups.
A new policy shift would occur at a moment in which the Trump administration has proudly declared its disinterest over human rights in the Middle East and Philippines. And there remain lingering questions over the President’s advisors’ connections with Russia—the one-time bête noire of many Cuba hardliners. A failed policy is about to be re-foisted on a flailing administration that has shown its rejection of human rights as a value in foreign policy and a lack of respect for liberal international values. Is this really the best government to defend human rights in Cuba? Let’s be frank, while I understand the arguments of pro-embargo advocates, it’s not a policy association I’d wish on even on my worst enemies.