Cuba is the Groundhog Day of the twentieth century. That the United States’ policy of isolation and permanent embargo went on into the 21st century is testimony to the endurance of both Americans and Cubans in making a failed policy become a third rail in U.S. domestic policy.
Not that there weren’t attempts at reconciliation over the last five decades. Nevertheless, changes are taking place now that will finally help move the United States beyond the outdated Cold War posturing to the realpolitik that its policy toward Cuba deserves.
Roughly three months have passed since President Barack Obama announced his policy shift on Cuba. The December 17 announcement, which took many by surprise, was long in the making. It reflected a cautious diplomacy that ended fifty years of a failed policy.
Almost everyone connected with Obama’s simple logic that if something has not worked after fifty years, it was time to try something new! But creating something new after such a long period of propaganda and disinformation will take hard work on the part of both the U.S. and the Cuban government.
After 50 years of Cuba’s isolation, it will take time to build trust between the two governments.
Cuban citizens, like Americans, will also need time to absorb the implications of what a political opening will mean, especially if the expectations caused by the December announcement are not matched by positive changes in their daily lives.
Yet Washington pundits and talking heads like to characterize things in black and white, winners or losers.
That is why I am so tired of invitations to public events that debate topics about winners and losers in the new Cuba policy. Predicting Cuba’s future has become an overnight growth industry in Washington.
At this stage in what will be a long process of negotiation and posturing, predicting winners and losers is counterproductive.
Both countries are trying to determine the new rules of the game–from opening embassies, to ending the embargo, to actually seeing Cuban citizens benefit from a more open society.
And Congress has set up the debate to end the embargo as a winner-take-all arrangement, rather than a sound step to improve the lives of Cubans and improve the economy of a bankrupt nation.
In this growth industry of public events focused on identifying winners and losers, Mexican historian Enrique Krauze, recently commented in the New York Review of Books that both Cuba and the U.S. share the blame for bad policy decisions.
But the blame for failure to create an economy that functions lies squarely on the shoulders of Fidel Castro. Quoting Cuban American economist Camelo Mesa-Lago, Krauze notes that when Castro attempted to mitigate the impact of the loss of Soviet aid in 1993, he implemented a disastrous policy of “rectification.”
As Krauze writes, Fidel’s “expansion of rationing, the prohibition of farmers’ markets in the countryside and a decrease in self-employment” made matters worse. Instead of reducing the effects of losing its Russian patron, Fidel’s atavistic approach to Soviet economics actually prolonged “the sudden and terrible suffering of the post-1993 period.”
It was not until Raúl Castro’s ascension to the presidency in 2006 that these destructive policies were loosened and an economic transition began.
There are many aspects of U.S. policy decisions about Cuba that one can fault. Why, after the Berlin Wall fell and we opened our pocketbooks and democracy-building tools to open up Eastern Europe, did we fail to help our Cuban neighbors 90 miles to the south?
U.S. electoral politics, for sure, played a role. But Cuba’s downward economic spiral began right after the revolution. Its leaders, bolstered by Soviet subsidies, let a country, which once produced nearly 80 percent of its food, import the same amount because of dreadful agricultural policies.
It is not surprising that many members of the Cuban diaspora in Miami still seek out Russian canned goods at local groceries for a taste of their past, given the shortages of local goods that so many Cubans experienced during their lives on the island.
This policy shift for average Cubans—those who have lived in a dictatorship and under a repressive and secretive regime—cannot be stopped. Cuban society has been waiting for a new way forward.
The way forward will take leadership from civil society. It may still put many citizens at risk. Recently, there was an online discussion in Juventud Rebelde—the Union of Young Communists’ newspaper—that focused on what an election might look like when the party’s Congress meets in 2016.
Many readers responded by suggesting the need for a more transparent process such as secret ballots and open debate, things that augur change.
But don’t expect the Cuban government to invite the Democratic or Republican Party Institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy to join the discussion any time soon.
Yet the door has opened to a future that includes a way to incorporate free markets, U.S. investment and, with it all, the benefits that help people gain greater freedom and human dignity.
Private sector groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the major agricultural conglomerates are taking a lead in advocating for changes in trading rules. Senators from farm states have already made visits to Havana to show solidarity for an economic opening and specifically for rescinding the embargo. In the end, they will be the winners of this policy shift.
But change will not only be about politics, which by definition in a democracy is about winners and losers. The creation of political space is only the first step. Change will also be about the island’s economy.
Enabling the transition to a market economy will take longer. More than think tanks churning up the political waters with questions about who is winning and who is losing in this new political environment, it will take leadership in our legislative bodies to give future policy teeth, let alone resources.
The U.S. Congress should not fear this change. Sixty-three percent of Americans supported Obama’s new Cuba policy; 66 percent support an end to the embargo. Congress must now show with deeds, rather than vacuous debates, that we are serious about closing a chapter on a failed policy.