Yesterday morning we woke up to the good news that Alan Gross, the American contractor who was arrested in Cuba in December 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for importing satellite phones and computer equipment without a Cuban government permit, had been freed and was finally coming home. In return, the American government released the three remaining Cuban spies of the so-called Cuban Five, and around the same time, President Obama announced he would restore full diplomatic relations with the island nation.
The United States hadn’t had any relations with Cuba since 1962 when President Kennedy officially signed the Cuban embargo into effect. That embargo—which President Obama only this year extended (it has to be extended every year)—is still in effect, because it would need congressional action to be lifted. But a thaw in the relations of the two countries has definitely begun, and the restoration of full diplomatic relations with a U.S. embassy being reestablished in Havana is an important first step that will eventually lead to lifting the embargo, too.
And even though my fellow Republicans have harshly criticized the president for his poor negotiating skills in the prisoner exchange, for establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba without getting anything in return, and for working to lift the embargo, I am going to step out of the line and commend Obama for that. This is a rare issue on which I agree with the president and I do think that when history is going to judge him, this will be one of the few of his decisions that will be looked at positively.
We have to face the facts. The fifty-year embargo has been insanely unsuccessful. It hasn’t brought down the communist regime of Cuba, it hasn’t ended the Cuban government’s shoddy dealings with other pariah nations like Russia, Venezuela, and China, it hasn’t done anything to end the Cuban government’s ongoing violation of human rights—in fact, all it has done is make the lives of ordinary Cubans even worse than they would otherwise be.
Moreover, according to estimates, the Cuban embargo costs the United States economy $1.2-$3.6 billion a year in lost sales and exports. Even if the fact that the embargo is hurting ordinary Cubans is ignored, how can we ignore the damage it does to the United States and its businesses? And, we also have to bear in mind that the Cuban government has always accused the embargo of the poor state of their nation—so if the embargo were to be lifted, they would lose this very important ideological weapon against their own people. And then the people would actually get their rightful chance to look at their leaders and ask, “why are our lives still so incredibly shitty now that the reason for that is gone?”
The important issue about the Cuban embargo is the fact that the reasons it was imposed in the first place are long gone. I do think it was the right thing to do when the Soviet Union tried to place its nuclear weapons on the island and was thus making Cuba a direct threat to the United States. But those nuclear weapons don’t exist any more. The Soviet Union, or “Russia,” as it’s called today, is a much bigger military threat to its own neighbors in Europe, not so much to the United States, not to mention the Russian regime doesn’t today have the finances to threaten the United States with military force. And what comes to potential physical threats the United States faces today—the ones imposed by ISIS, Iran, North Korea and freelance terrorists are far greater than anything coming from Cuba. In fact, the only real threat that could come from Cuba are its tasty cigars and strong mojitos.
Allowing the American companies to do business with Cubans, however, does have a potential of making the lives of ordinary Cubans better. Establishing subsidiaries, buying Cuban produce and selling their own to Cuba opens the possibility of allowing their Cuban partners and employees lead better lives by paying them wages higher than the Cuban government or its limited amount of private companies would. Why would they do that, you ask? Because in a competitive environment, the one with the best offer gets the prize. The same principle applies to the human resources market.
But more importantly, lifting the embargo would give the United States a strong position of being able to help make Cuba a better place. By using the same tactics as President Ronald Reagan used with the Soviet Union—promising help to the regime in return for reforms and freedoms—the United States could indeed help Cubans to topple their oppressive regime and build themselves a democratic homeland. The United States could offer financial and development aid, education, incentives for doing business with American companies, low-interest loans, etc, etc, in return for improving the human rights situation in Cuba, for releasing political prisoners, for implementing a market economy, for ending the one-party system, for allowing free and open elections, and so on and so forth.
The United States has a real opportunity here to do its world policeman’s job through calculated diplomatic steps designed to manipulate the Cuban government into signing its own death warrant. Oppressive regimes never last forever, but a fear society, for the lack of a better expression, can extend its existence if it’s not given proper incentives to loosen its grip. But when these incentives are given to help decrease that fear, the people will become less afraid and therefore take steps to extend their freedoms even further. It’s only the Cuban people themselves who can bring down the Castros’ iron fist, but we the civilized world can help them overcome their fear to actually do that.