The people-power revolutions that ousted the decades-old autocratic governments of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and are rocking the rest of the Middle East have prompted Cuba watchers --yet again-- to wonder when the last redoubt of Cold War dictatorship in the hemisphere is next. It isn't, and we have U.S. policy partly to blame.
For the last two decades, from Eastern Europe to Egypt, none of the countries that has experienced a people's revolution has been under a U.S. embargo. Though it is about to be the target of focused sanctions as a result of its bloody response to the protestors (and deservedly so) before the current uprising even Libya saw its sanctions ended in 2004 by the George W. Bush administration. In the case of Libya --and in the past-- targeted sanctions tied to a specific act by the government can provoke a course correction or even collapse. Over the long-term, though, sanctions actually seal a country off from the rest of the world and allow a government to dig in. The inverse relationship between isolation and people's revolution is no coincidence. Contact with the outside world builds capacity and ideas insidious to even the most tyrannical regime.
Whether it was the 1989 Velvet Revolution in then-Czechoslovakia, the end of communist rule in Poland (two years after U.S. sanctions were ended after the crackdown on Solidarity) or the broad coalition that ended the 30 year-reign of Mubarak last week, the symbols, motivations and means of these peaceful transitions owe much to the sort of contacts that the 52-year U.S. embargo on Cuba has cut off. Defended as a way to deny the regime of Fidel and Raúl Castro the resources to oppress its own people, the U.S.' half century-old sanctions against Cuba have, in pursuing this noble effort, become a blunt instrument. In the name of this cause, the embargo has sealed off the Cuban people from personal interaction with average Americas and denied it the inspiration and tools for its own liberation. Communication, contact and even limited trade is not a zero sum game; sometimes, yes, the regime may benefit, but sometimes the people benefit more, especially when it helps break down the control over information that such regimes need to survive.
Make no mistake. The level and type of repression in Cuba exceeds that in Egypt under Mubarak or even Eastern Europe under communism. Fifty years of cruel, systematic repression by the Castro regime, the penetration of government spies throughout society and the suffocating control of the state over the economy have atomized civil society, closed off freedom of expression and left Cuban citizens dependent for their livelihoods on the state. As a result, many Cubans --especially the younger generation-beaten down by decades of repression, deprived of inspiring contact with the outside world and denied broad access to the tools of communication-- are left waiting for the end of a gerontocracy.
A series of initiatives by the Obama administration in 2009 to allow for greater telecommunications contact with the island and for person-to-person contact for cultural or educational changes with Cuba have helped to alleviate some of the isolation. These could have gone, farther, however, in ways that would directly support broader contacts between the U.S. citizens and Cuban society and help to develop the means for Cubans to communicate among themselves. Restrictions on U.S. telecommunications investment in Cuba are more stringent than toward Syria and even Iran--a country that is now experiencing its own groundswell of support, thanks at least in part to social media. In Cuba, the effort to expand access to new media tools such as high-speed Internet, Twitter, Facebook and Google ran smack into the 1992 the Cuban Democracy Act which prohibits U.S. investment that contributes Cuba's telecommunications infrastructure. Cell phones, fiber optic cable and social media require hardware and software forbidden under the U.S. current restrictions toward Cuba. Cuba's first fiber optic cable arrived last week. Rather than coming from the U.S., though, it came courtesy of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, whose government, in December, instituted restrictions on freedom of expression on the Internet.
Would the Cuban government have allowed its citizens to purchase and use these potentially subversive tools that the U.S. companies produce and sell? We'll never know since the U.S. did it for them. Ironic that a democratic, supposedly freedom- and free-market promoting government did the dirty work for the Cuban regime. As for the recent reforms to expand people-to-people contact between the island and the U.S., even these mild measures are meeting with resistance. Two U.S. Senators are trying to cap the number of flights to Cuba. Given that the flights would shuttle cultural and educational travelers to the island, the intention is unclear. To deny Cubans access to U.S. music? Art? Education? A similar move to choke off personal contact with Eastern Europe during the Cold War (many dissidents cited the influence of rock and roll in their rebellion), or even Egypt or Tunisia, would have rightly been met with derision. The infectious effect of personal exchange, intellectual empowerment and human contact grossly outweighs any possible advantages any regime can extract from a few tourist dollars. Just as the victorious crowds in Egypt demonstrate.
Under current U.S. law Cuba will never have a Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who has become a hero in Egypt for defending freedom of expression and communication among activists in Egypt. Nor are we likely to see one rise anytime soon. International contact, investment, access to communication inspired and sparked the mass rallies that contributed to the end of 30 years of Mubarak's rule. In the case of Cuba, for the Castro brothers, it's been over 50 years. Under the current sanctions, we're going to be waiting for some time unfortunately.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.