1st step toward change for Cuba: End embargo

By Lee Hamilton
Mar 10 2008

 The end of Fidel Castro's rule provides an opportunity to ease the pain of a half–century–long repressive era in Cuban history. Fidel's younger brother Raúl's ascension could mean a Cuban opening is on the horizon.

At age 76, whether Raúl Castro is a reformer or not will not change the fact that Cuba is entering a prolonged transition period away from one–man, and now dynastic, rule.

The United States wants a free, democratic and prosperous Cuba, but we need the right policies to help Cubans. Real change can begin soon, and we should be trying to influence it. There are two broad options for U.S. policy toward Cuba.

The United States can press on with its 46–year embargo in hopes of finally inspiring a popular revolt against the communist regime. This option insists that Cuba embrace democracy before the U.S. re–establishes bilateral ties. Or it can opt for engagement in hopes of promoting a gradual and peaceful end to one of the Cold War's last lingering conflicts.

My view is that beginning to normalize our relations with Cuba would help, not hinder, those in Cuba who want a change of political direction.

As far as the embargo goes, its major benefactors have been politicians seeking support in this country and anti–American leaders overseas in need of talking points — not the Cuban or American people. The embargo has failed to achieve regime change in Havana, the Cuban people continue to suffer under a repressive regime, and, furthermore, it has alienated our Latin American allies.

But ending the embargo is hardly a solution in and of itself. Though its repeal would allow Cubans and Americans to trade, invest and travel, we must recognize that Cuba is a closed and repressed society, one that Fidel Castro increasingly victimized throughout his dictatorial rule starting in 1959. The hesitancy with which ordinary Cubans have discussed their country's future in the last few weeks illustrates the constant fear Castro's police state has instilled.

As we have seen in other countries subjected to despotic rule, the wounds of tyranny are deep, and we cannot treat them brazenly. Also, Raúl Castro and his elite chums will not go to bed tonight communist revolutionaries and wake up Jeffersonian democrats tomorrow morning. Deng Xiaoping and the Chinese may be more likely economic role models. Change will be gradual.

Certainly, we can engage in informal, unofficial exchanges with a country 90 miles from our border that shares some of our cultural fixations, like baseball, as those who followed the World Baseball Classic in 2006 know.

Building up an economic relationship could also pay dividends. The recent pandemonium in Havana resulting from rumors of a shift away from Cuba's failing dual–currency system reveals Cuba's present economic dysfunction. Raúl Castro himself has critiqued a bloated and inefficient public sector, with government salaries unable to cover the costs of living. Commerce is more likely than isolation to inspire positive change.

We could relax the travel ban. Academic exchanges would be welcome too, allowing university students to establish bonds that could form the foundation of a new era of Cuban–American amity.

Cuba remains a communist country, and its governing ideology is irreconcilable with the universal ideals of liberty and self–government. Cuba eventually will need to dismantle communism's failed institutions — this is not something America can, or should try to, initiate.

It is time for responsible, relaxed, non–interventionist approaches in our policy toward Cuba. With so much talk of change in politics this year, our relationship with Havana is an obvious example of where it is necessary, realistic and high time.

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)