The Revolution’s best friend

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, November 12, 2013


Since it came to power almost 55 years ago, the Cuban Revolution has counted on the US embargo as one of its most reliable allies. The trade embargo on the island has given the Cuban dictatorship a readily-available scapegoat to justify its mistakes, errors and ill-conceived policies. As long as the US continues to pursue counterproductive policies toward Cuba, the island’s authoritarian government will continue to drag its feet implementing market-friendly and democratic reforms.


The Cuban Revolution brought Latin America into the Cold War. Washington and Moscow fiercely fought for influence in the region, with the US supporting anti-Communist regimes and the Soviet Union promoting revolutionary efforts. After the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, Fidel Castro deepened ties with the Soviets and the US strengthened an economic embargo against the island. The 1962 missile crisis almost triggered a nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers. In response to revolutionary guerrillas, financed by the Soviet Union and supported by Cuba, the US threw its support behind authoritarian regimes that systematically violated human rights as they sought to prevent the spread of Communism.


After three decades of confrontation, the Cold War came to an end in 1989. When it no longer perceived a Communist threat, the US promoted the end of authoritarian rule in Latin America. Democracy became the only game in town in the mid-1990s.


As the rest of Latin America struggled to consolidate democracy, Cuba remained under Communist rule. By the late 1990s, when all other Latin American countries had held at least one democratic election, the Cuban revolutionary government resisted efforts to bring about economic and democratic liberalization. Despite the economic crisis produced by the end of Soviet subsidies, the Cuban government opted to weather out the crisis by implementing a draconian austerity programme and adopting a heavy hand against political dissent — the special period.


Washington, pressured by Cuban-US citizen lobbying, strengthened the embargo. Unlike China or Vietnam, where the US chose a friendlier trade engagement policy to promote market-friendly reforms, Cuban policy continued to be dominated by Cold War mentality. In turn, the Cuban government readily pointed to the US embargo — or blockade, as the Castro regime calls it — as the reason behind widespread poverty and insufficient economic development.


After the September 11 attacks made Washington’s priorities shift towards the Middle East, the rise of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez — a fervent admirer of the Castro revolution — made it difficult for the Bush administration to update its policies towards Cuba. The fact that the Cuban-US anti-Castro lobbying in the United States had strong links with the Republican Party further complicated the efforts championed by moderate US policy wonks to move beyond Cold War policies towards Cuba. The enthusiastic support given by the US government to the failed coup against the Venezuelan leader in 2002 helped strengthenedthe Castro-Chávez friendship and increased their collaboration. Venezuela benefited from the Cuban experience resisting US opposition and Cuba had access much needed Venezuelan oil. The Chávez-Castro pact made it easier for Cuba to resist political and economic liberalization.


After Fidel Castro retired in 2008, his younger brother Raúl launched timid and somewhat erratic economic and political liberalization initiatives. After Barack Obama came to power in 2009, the US responded by easing some embargo policies. The Cuban-US lobbying also showed less discipline as younger Cuban-US citizens were inclined to engage with Cuba rather than keep the ineffective trade embargo. The death of Hugo Chávez and the increasing problems of his chosen successor, Nicolás Maduro, have constituted a strong warning for Cuba. The cheap and reliable supply of Venezuelan oil will not last forever. Thus, the Cuban government has again begun to look for new trade partners. China is an obvious choice, but if you are going to embrace some form of capitalism, you might as well look at your closest neighbour.


Washington, in turn, has also started to pay closer attention to Cuba. In a recent trip to Miami, President Obama acknowledged that some positive changes have taken place in Cuba under Raúl Castro. Though the embargo is still firmly in place, and the political forces in its favour outweigh those who want to repeal it, there is a small window of opportunity opening up for a fruitful engagement between Havana and Washington.


The trade embargo remains the most important issue on the table preventing bilateral talks. The Cuban government blames it for the economic hardships it has suffered and often uses it to justify its unwillingness to reform the economy and stop political repression. Though it has fervent supporters among the exiled Cuban community — particularly in southern Florida — the embargo has proven to be ineffective in weakening the Cuban dictatorship. After all, the Cuban regime today stands as the oldest authoritarian government in the world.


The US would do best to promote economic and political liberalization in Cuba by repealing the embargo and adopting a more engaging trade relationship with the Communist government. Even though repealing the embargo would not guarantee success, Washington would eliminate the most recurrent excuse the authoritarian Cuban government uses to justify its resistance to bringing about economic and political liberalization.