History has absolved Castro
The decision by President Obama to pursue diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than 50 years of estrangement has been hailed as startling, but it is really quite commonsensical and natural.
The Cold War, after all, has long ended, Cuba is no longer 'exporting communism', and there is no communist superpower in global contest with the United States, using a country in its backyard to stir up trouble. And besides, diplomatic isolation and punitive economic sanctions have failed to roll back communism or to lead the Cuban regime to adopt a Western-style democratic system. Nor is there any indication that the Cuban people are about to overthrow their communist government.
As President Obama put it in his historic speech last Wednesday announcing the dramatic US policy sea change, "These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked. It's time for a new approach." That is why, he pointed out, "we will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests ... ." One leading Republican contender for president, Cuban-American Marco Rubio, was quick to condemn Obama's announcement as "part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants". He said President Obama was "the single worst negotiator we have had in the White House in my lifetime".
Rubio said, "All this is going to do is to give the Castro regime, which controls every aspect of Cuban life, the opportunity to manipulate these changes to perpetuate itself in power." The Republicans are in a time warp and have, as is their custom, taken leave of rationality in assessing this issue. Carol Giacomo was right to dismiss them on Wednesday in an opinion piece in The New York Times: "When it comes to Cuba, some think 50 years of failed policy is not enough." Jeb Bush, another would-be Republican presidential contender from that Bush tribe that already wreaked havoc from the White House, said on Wednesday: "I don't think we should be negotiating with a repressive regime to make changes in our relationship (until Cuba changes)."
Let's start with the incontestable, empirical facts: Decades of isolation and sanctions have not toppled the regime or produced Western-style democracy. Will another 50 years do that? Plus, on what basis do the Republicans not call for the breaking off of relations with China and Russia, which are also not Western democracies and which also breach civil liberties? America resumed diplomatic relations with the communist Vietnam regime with which it was at war. America did not insist on regime change before establishing diplomatic relations with those states. Why the difference with Cuba?
Hear Jeb Bush: "Cuba is a dictatorship, plain and simple. The United States should only have a new relationship with Cuba when there is progress on basic human rights ... fair and free elections, the respect for the rule of law ... and embrace of a free-market economy." Do those conditions exist in China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Pakistan? Where was Jeb Bush when the US was hugging up dictators all over Latin America? Where was he when America was stoutly defending - indeed creating - dictatorships in its "fight against communism"? The Republicans' hypocrisy is so grating. The best chance of achieving democratic change in Cuba is by engagement, not estrangement. It is through increased trade, investment and cultural ties. This has been proven historically. President Obama's announcement on Wednesday is part of his own foreign-policy philosophy of engaging ideological opponents, of talking to enemies rather than isolating them. His historic move last week, which will bequeath a legacy worth celebrating in his second term, forms part of his liberal internationalist approach to foreign policy.
Foremost scholar on Cuba, Julia Sweig, and Michael Bustamante, in their July-August 2013 Foreign Affairs article 'Cuba After Communism', had put Obama's choices well: "He can opt for the path of least political resistance and allow well-entrenched bureaucrats, national security ideologues and pro-embargo voices in his own country to keep Cuba policy in a box, further alienating regional allies and perpetuating the siege mentality among Cuban officials, or he can dare to be the president who finally extracts the United States from Cuba's internal debate and finds a way for Washington and Havana to work together. Both the Cuban people and US national interests would benefit as a result."
The Republicans are not just trailing Obama in this rational approach to Cuba; they are also trailing the American people. National polls have consistently showed a majority of Americans supporting resuming diplomatic ties and easing the trade embargo and lifting of travel restrictions to Cuba. This includes growing Cuban American support, reflecting generational change.
The Republicans while in office up to this century not only continued, but strengthened America's isolation and punishment of Cuba. In late 2003, President George Bush found time to establish an inter-agency Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, with the explicit purpose "to help the Cuban people bring about an expeditious end of the dictatorship". I kid you not. When that commission issued its first report in 2004, it recommended tightening restrictions on family visits and other categories of travel. (In that year also, Bush reduced the cap on family remittances to Cuba from US$3,000 to a measly $300). These recommendations were accepted in June 2004, and in February 2005, there were even more stringent restrictions on payment terms for US agricultural exports to Cuba.
Obama had promised in his election campaign to take a more moderate attitude towards Cuba, and he was faithful to that promise. In his first term, he allowed US citizens to send remittances to non-family members and to travel there for educational and religious purposes. In April 2009, he lifted all restrictions on family travel and remittances. In January 2011, his administration announced new measures to ease travel restrictions and to allow all Americans to send remittances to Cuba. Obama's policy has been to destabilise attachment to non-democratic practices by offering the Cuban people more opportunities and giving Americans more chances to interact with them and send their money there.
SEEDS OF REFORM
In its major report issued on July 31 this year titled Cuba: US Policy and Issues for the 113th Congress, the Congressional Research Service sums up the thinking of those pushing for change in Washington's policy towards Cuba: "They assert that, if the United States moderated its policy towards Cuba - through increased travel, trade and dialogue - then the seeds of reform would be planted, which would stimulate forces for peaceful change ... . They stressed the importance to the United States of avoiding violent change in Cuba, with the prospect of a mass exodus to the United States. They argue that, since the demise of Cuba's communist government does not appear imminent, the United States should espouse a more pragmatic approach to bring about change in Cuba."
Let me say clearly that I have strongly deplored the hypocrisy of the Caribbean Left, which has routinely downplayed the human-rights abuses in Cuba and Cuba's trampling on civil liberties. The very reason why now-released political prisoner Alan Gross was arrested was gross. He was simply trying to get Internet connection to some Jews there. The Cuban government does not allow its people free access to the World Wide Web, and it controls the media. I had for long criticised my mentor, John Maxwell, a staunch defender of press freedom everywhere else but in Cuba and other communist states. That was hypocrisy, and I called him out publicly on it.
NOT A MODEL
Our Jamaican Left has glorified Cuba's social and human development while sidestepping its violations of human rights, its persecution of dissidents, and its religious repression. Cuba is not a model of human development, for man shall not live by bread alone. (Though he needs it to live, I say to my friends who defend neo-liberal capitalism!) I also would love to see Cuba abandon its anti-democratic system, though there have been commendable changes and some liberalisation. But diplomatic isolation is not the way to achieve that, as has been demonstrated these more than 50 years.
Obama's move will strengthen America's political capital in Latin America and the Caribbean, particularly, and will deepen its relations with this region. It is a triumph for liberal internationalism and multilateralism. It will also improve America's stocks globally. This year again, at the UN General Assembly - with 188 countries backing the resolution and only the US and - surprise! - Israel opposing - the US embargo was condemned for the 23rd consecutive year.
I oppose Cuban communism, but there is something about that defiant, indefatigable Cuban spirit of resistance and independence that I deeply admire. I admire Fidel Castro for his unflinching, indomitable commitment to his ideals. He never bowed. The Cuban people never bowed, even in the face of the harshest economic sanctions and personal suffering. The Cuban people, even with the economic decline of the Soviet Union, their main sponsor, and the collapse of the entire Eastern Europe, stood on their feet and proved they were not for sale. Cuba stood alone. Cuba remained resolute in an age of expediency and sell-out. In his famous speech, Castro said, "History will absolve me." It has. And I am glad he lived to see it.