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Concessions to the Cubans would Embolden the Regime

Some elements of U.S. policy [b]should not be changed[/b] irrespective of Cuban government actions. Any unilateral opening would be interpreted as weakness.

NO. Should some elements of U.S. policy still be changed irrespective of what the Cuban government does in the short term?

We shouldn't make unilateral concessions to the Castro regime because it will cost lives. Fundamentally fragile, totalitarian dictatorships interpret all policy actions through the narrow lens of regime survival. That means they unfailingly construe unilateral concessions as weakness. That is a very dangerous message to send to Raúl and Fidel Castro in the zero-sum game they play with their own people.

Simply put: to retain power, the Castros must deny Cubans the very freedoms they overwhelmingly want. Therefore, if a morally and economically bankrupt, violence-prone, half-century old dictatorship is led to believe that it can kill without any significant response, it will unhesitatingly do so.

Take a recent example: the July 2010 deal between Cuba and the Roman Catholic Church, brokered by the government of Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, to free 52 dissidents. Such unilateral coddling along with the support received from a coterie of left-wing Latin American leaders and the decision by the Organization of American States to rescind Cuba’s expulsion made the Castros think that they could once again get away with murder. (And any careful review of how the regime proceeded to methodically break the health of imprisoned civil rights activist Orlando Zapata Tamayo leaves no doubt that it was murder with the mistaken belief that killing a defiant black laborer would stymie the resistance of his fellow activists while passing unnoticed by the international community.)

Why did the regime then sit down with Cardinal Jaime Ortega and then deport some political prisoners? Because as the Cardinal himself has recognized, the spike in internal civic defiance and the international condemnation caused by Zapata's murder threatened the fragile status quo in which the regime survives.

The Castro dictatorship is facing a non-violent civic insurgency. Resistance is a fact. The Regime must suppress it to survive. This is why the regime continues to attack, arrest and imprison freedom activists. Only perceived losses in terms of international standing and foreign economic aid and investment can limit the dictatorship’s decision to repress.

Because of this, for the first time, the regime has sat down with the Catholic Church to work out a solution to a national issue. It cannot stabilize the country without the acquiescence of the resistance. However, the Castros fear that dealing directly with the resistance would somehow recognize that their monopoly over Cuba’s national life is swiftly ending.

There are two paths from here: one fraught with danger, the other rich with hope.

The first: steadily normalizing relations with a failed and spent dictatorship through the progressive unilateral lifting of sanctions. Would that be wise? Wouldn’t that tell the regime that it can continue to ignore its opposition and repress it precisely when that opposition has shown that it can bring the regime to the negotiating table? We can be sure of this: neither the desire for power of the Castros and their acolytes nor the growing resistance to it can be ignored. Unwarranted flexibilities with the Castros will undermine the island’s grass roots pro-democracy movement because they will directly decrease the political cost of repression for the regime.

The other track: understanding Cuba's struggle for democracy as a fundamental part of its national identity and appreciating that Cubans, especially youth and workers, are increasingly demanding respect for their basic human freedoms. It is now evident to the world that the Castros’ problems are with the Cuban people and not with the United States.

The Administration must now use this to help build an international coalition that will firmly engage with and support Cuba's growing democratic resistance. Recent events have shown that this coalition of the internal resistance and the international community can successfully pressure the regime to make unprecedented concessions. However, the main premise must be that the Castro regime deliver the goods—the civil liberties of the Cuban people—up front, precisely because its has demonstrated that its desired goal is not a democratic transition, but rather totalitarian continuity.

Short-term concessions run the risk of being interpreted as a green light to escalate repression. And this will open the door to the terrible possibility of a Caribbean Tiananmen Square, a massive exodus or both just 90 miles from U.S. shores. In support of the Cuban people, the international community can stop the regime's escalation of violence. But only by demonstrating its absolute intolerance through clear, resolute and morally coherent policies that put democracy first.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.