After more than 55 years of communist rule by the Castro brothers, most of the Cuban population of 11 million know no other way of life. But that may soon be changing.
Since an aged and ailing Fidel Castro ceded the Cuban presidency to brother Raul in 2008, long-overdue economic reforms that were grudging and at the margins have been accelerating. Only in the past few years have farmers been allowed to sell for personal profit any surplus food they produce above what the government tells them to grow. Restrictions have been loosened on travel and private business ownership, and more than 500,000 people are employed in the private sector. Cubans are now allowed to own their housing, most all of which was previously owned by and rented from the government.
Now that President Obama has met with Raul Castro and intends to restore full diplomatic relations with the Caribbean island nation, the Cuban people are cautiously hopeful.
The devil is always in the details, of course, as those of us who were part of a Council of American Ambassadors mission to Cuba in March are well aware.
Fundamentally, Cuba’s desire to improve relations with America is driven by the growing recognition that its “social project” of the last half century has failed to deliver an acceptable quality of life. As long as money and goods were flowing in from Soviet treasuries and left-wing Latin American dictators flush with oil, life was bearable. But with the easing of travel restrictions and communication regulations in 2013, Cubans are seeing the world, and many of the young generation prefer the opportunities for life outside Cuba. “If we do not change soon,” one official told us, “we will lose an entire generation of bright young talent.”
Restoring full diplomatic relations with Havana could pave the way
for lifting the U.S. economic embargo imposed on Cuba in 1962. The tens of billions of dollars in U.S. investment in Cuba’s decrepit infrastructure and economy, along with the tourist boom that would follow, could bring about the Caribbean equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall. As Mikhail Gorbachev’s experiment with glasnost and perestroika demonstrated in the 1980s, there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle once a politically repressed and economically deprived people are given a taste of freedom and prosperity.
Still, it may be overly optimistic to believe, as Carlos Alzugaray Treto, professor of hemispheric and U.S. studies at the University of Havana, does that, “There will be an Apple Store in our future” – at least as long as the sale of computer equipment is strictly regulated, Internet access is controlled and email is closely monitored.
On the other hand, we met with three members of Cuba’s National Assembly who said that they would be proposing constitutional amendments to move their country away from a one-party state toward a more democratic system between now and 2018. As a senior official in the Ministry of Trade confided: “We are not as good as we want to be, but we are not as bad as many have said.”
Our delegation also met with the chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis. He cautioned that after nearly three generations of a command-and-control model of governance in Havana, it will take time and patience to move Cuba toward what he calls “de-state-ification” and open markets.
For decades, Cuba’s foreign policy was marked by one principle: defiance! “We would find out what America’s position was on an issue and do the opposite,” one official told us. That is no longer the case, he explained. “Why do you think we refused Edward Snowden’s request to seek haven in Cuba?” he asked.
The big issues may take decades to resolve: reparations for those whose property was nationalized, the status of Guantanamo, the extension of basic human rights, including the treatment of dissidents. But this experience convinced us that if our compass is America’s strategic interests, it no longer makes sense to force the 11 million people to our South into the arms of the Russians, Venezuelans, Chinese, North Koreans, Iranians or whatever nation or movement’s enduring international posture toward America and the West is best characterized by defiance!
Thousands of details remain to be worked out through a relationship of mutual respect and civility. But after more than 50 years, it’s clear that Cuban communism has been a disappointment for the Cuban people. At the same, the U.S. economic embargo hasn’t brought about the desired regime change, either. It’s time to try a new approach.
Mark Erwin of Charlotte is a former U.S. ambassador to Mauritius, the Seychelles and Comoros under President Clinton. Jim Cain of Raleigh is a former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark. He was appointed by President George W. Bush.