Watching Air Force One roar above Cuba’s dilapidated streets en route to Havana’s airport last March was indeed an imposing and historic sight to behold. It represented the culmination of more than two years of the Obama Administration’s efforts to warm and normalize relations with our hemisphere’s only remaining dictatorship.
The American left is giddy, as it always has been at the notion of finally embracing an “often-misunderstood neighbor.” The American right, on the other hand, remains divided about whether normalizing relations with Cuba and repealing the embargo is a good idea.
Many self-described libertarians, for example, view the embargo as an outdated, pointless barrier to free trade and capitalism. Others on the right favor lifting sanctions simply because they’re seeing dollar signs — for themselves, the political jurisdictions they represent, or of course, their campaign benefactors. Meanwhile, most mainstream conservatives believe the embargo promotes genuine political change on the island, beyond mere economic development.
Regardless of their particular motivations, proponents of normalization and lifting the embargo almost always make a moral argument, which usually goes something like this:
“The embargo is a Cold War relic that has not worked after five and a half decades. The embargo only hurts the Cuban people who suffer the shortages that these restrictions create. Government officials and tourists have it well, while the Cuban people are starved of food and basic goods. We should lift the embargo so we can flood the island with capitalism and dollars, thereby showing the Cuban people what they’ve been missing all these years so that they will rise up and demand change.”
Needless to say, “change” is word that many on the right have developed misgivings over in recent years, especially when used vaguely. Would lifting the embargo bring change to Cuba? Most agree that it would. And even I as an opponent of lifting the embargo concede that it might improve the daily lives of Cubans on the island, albeit marginally.
But when a country has been dragged to rock bottom, it is not unreasonable to assume that almost any change would bring about some improvement.
But at what cost? History gives us a glimpse of potential outcomes.
The Asian and Eastern European Divergence
Indeed, normalization with countries such as China, and to a lesser extent Vietnam, has produced some positive results for its regular citizens: millions more have electricity, running water, cars, television sets, and other basic comforts that they didn’t enjoy 20 or 30 years ago—comforts that most Cubans, however, did enjoy before 1959. There are a number of wealthy Chinese, but these are generally government apparatchiks or well-connected family members who have been permitted by the regime to transact in high-end business deals. Average citizens, however, are generally unable to achieve such upward mobility: they collide with a government-imposed glass ceiling erected to keep the politically unconnected in check and government critics segregated from “legitimate” economic activity entirely.
Large percentages of the population especially in rural areas have derived little to no benefit from increased trade with the west and continue living in abject poverty—conditions far worse than the poorest of Americans experience. Conservative estimates place over 200 million Chinese living in poverty and earning less than $1 per day.
Nevertheless, normalization with these countries has permitted Americans to invest and in many cases profit from their economic relationships. Unfortunately, this has also contributed to the migration of American jobs overseas due to these countries’ lenient environmental and labor standards and their laws explicitly prohibiting workers from unionizing.
However, when these cases are compared with onetime communist countries who instead sought political change first, the differences are stark.
Twenty years after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, most of the citizens of those former Soviet client states are by far freer and more prosperous than the Chinese and Vietnamese. These are countries that transformed their political systems first to allow constitutional changes and free elections, which generally resulted in the ouster of their communist tormentors who were in many cases replaced with pro-American dissident leaders (think: Lech Walesa and Vaclav Havel). Political liberalization organically led to market-freeing reforms that have allowed these formerly subjugated people to do business and compete with the west on a generally level playing field and within the confines of a stable rule of law.
In contrast, investors doing business with China and Vietnam must still contend with a burdensome communist bureaucracy designed to reward its cronies and cement its authority. It is the same bureaucracy that acts as biased judge, jury, and executioner when legal conflicts arise under a system where the “law” is based on the arbitrary whims of the communist party.
Twenty years after the fall of communism, most Eastern European countries enjoy free speech and press, multiparty elections, and close political and cultural ties with the West. In fact, they have become America’s staunchest allies. More than thirty years of normalization with China, on the other hand, has produced little to none of that.
And that brings up another argument that proponents of normalizing relations with Cuba often make:
“So if we can’t have normal relations with Cuba because its communist regime violates human and civil rights, why then do we trade with China? Should we sever ties with China?”
The decision to normalize relations with China had more to do with Soviet containment than it had to do with China itself. When President Nixon chose to thaw US-China relations in 1972, it was the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union was on the march, and the United States felt the need counter Soviet influence abroad, especially in Asia. As such, the purpose of normalizing relations with Mao had little if anything to do with encouraging political or economic reforms internally, much less regime change. Instead, it was to create a mutually beneficial (mainly economic) relationship with the American goal of isolating the Soviet Union whose imperialistic tendencies was a far greater concern to the West than China’s internal politics. Similarly, the decision to normalize relations with Vietnam twenty-three years later had more to do with countering North Korean and Chinese influence in the region than it did promoting internal reforms.
An argument can be made that this economic interdependence continues to be necessary in light of Russia’s aggressive rhetoric and behavior in recent years.
Nevertheless, despite decades of normalization and the interdependent economic relationship it produced, China can hardly be described as a friend or ally of the United States. China continues to thwart us diplomatically whenever possible; it maintains alliances with our enemies such as North Korea, Iran, and yes, Cuba; it is America’s chief cyber-aggressor; and it regularly engages in threatening military activities against Japan, Taiwan, and other American allies.
This is largely because China’s leadership and nomenklatura are essentially the same as those who came to power with Mao in 1949. Naturally, the individual players are different, as many of the original revolutionaries have died off, but those in power today represent their ideological, and in many cases, physical offspring.
Cuba would be no different.
Cuba Continues its Hostility Toward America
Cuba’s unelected revolutionary leaders today are the same ones that took power by force in 1959 and quickly did everything possible to undermine the United States in word and deed: They joined the Soviet axis; expropriated billions of dollars of American property; almost ignited a nuclear war; exported communist terrorism and revolution around the globe; spied and sold U.S. intelligence secrets to America’s enemies, including an historic, 17 year-long, top-level breach in the Dept. of Defense; plotted terror attacks on U.S. soil; trafficked drugs, and even shot down two civilian airplanes over international waters, killing three American citizens, including a Vietnam War veteran.
Many proponents of normalization dismiss these past activities as right-wing fear mongering or grudge-holding. They say it happened years ago and that the Castros have since “softened.”
“They are no longer the exporters of terrorism or instigators against the United States that they once were,” they say. “Cuba’s harmless.”
Except, the facts do not uphold these claims:
- The Miami Herald has reported that at least as recently as 2008, Cuba was increasing its above-referenced spying activities in the United States.
- Two years ago, a cargo ship from Cuba was intercepted at the Panama Canal and found to be carrying missiles, military vehicles, weapons, and even two dismantled fighter jets intended for its ally North Korea in violation of UN and multilateral sanctions.
- Later that year, Russia and Cuba announced plans to reopen the Cold War-era Lourdes spy base near Havana, approximately 150 miles from the U.S. coast.
- A little over a year ago, Cuba’s ambassador to Iran expressed full support for Iran’s nuclear program.
- For 5 years, American citizen Alan Gross was held hostage in Cuba on trumped up charges for merely helping Cuba’s small Jewish community set-up internet access. He was finally released last year in exchange for three Cuban spies serving time in U.S. federal prison for their role in the murders of three Americans killed in the aforementioned civilian airplane shoot-down in 1996.
- Last year, a Chinese cargo ship bound for Cuba and carrying more weapons was also intercepted, this time in Colombia; the shipment was described as “the stuff of guerrilla warfare” and thus suspected to be intended for Colombia’s Cuba-backed FARC narco-terrorist guerrillas who have kidnapped and killed thousands of civilians, including Americans.
- The Cuban government is complicit in ongoing multi-billion dollar financial fraud schemes perpetrated against U.S. banks, insurance companies, Medicare, and by extension, American taxpayers.
- Along with Venezuela, Cuba has been implicated in collaborating with Iran to help smuggle radical Islamists into North America.
- Even now, Cuba continues to harbor high-profile American fugitives including terrorists, airplane hijackers, and a convicted cop-killer.
These are not the actions of a “softened” regime that is endeavoring to make amends for past hostilities.
But this is the America of Barack Obama and his desperation to concoct a legacy for himself as he continues to frantically prove how historic he is by flaunting his concern for oppressed people while rolling out the red carpet for their oppressors.
So consumed with his moment and detached from reality is Obama that he finds nothing wrong with inviting sworn enemies of the United States to an American Flag raising, of all things, while literally locking out the freedom fighters who suffer at their hands.
So naturally, exchanging a hostage for three convicted spies with American blood on their hands was exactly the goodwill gesture (read: political cover) this administration needed to justify normalization talks with the only dictatorship in our hemisphere.
And for those of us who want regime change in Cuba for all the obvious reasons, this could not have come at a more inopportune time.
America replaces Venezuela as Castro’s Sugar Daddy
The Castro regime has always enjoyed the luxury of foreign “sugar daddies” bankrolling its repression and subsidizing its failed economy: During the Cold War, it was the Soviet Union. Shortly after Soviet subsidies dried up, Castro was thrown a lifeline by the Clinton Administration, which eased travel restrictions and increased limits on cash remittances to the island. After the election of Hugo Chavez in 1999, Venezuela became Cuba’s next benefactor by “selling” Cuba over 100,000 barrels of oil per day—not for cash, but for the “services” of doctors and other professionals. This transaction amounted to a gift from Venezuela in exchange for Cuban slave labor. Cuba would then sell much of this free oil on the global market to prop-up its failed economy by infusing it with hard cash.
The epic failure of its socialist economy, coupled with the collapse in the global price of oil has forced Venezuela to drastically slash its oil shipments to Cuba in recent months. Once again, the Castro regime was in danger of finding itself without a sugar daddy to prop-up its economy.
Enter Barack Obama.
On December 17, 2014, Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced that the United States and Cuba would restore full diplomatic relations. This followed the announcement of the swap for the three convicted Cuban spies in exchange for American hostage Alan Gross, as well as an unnamed American intelligence asset. The Castro regime also agreed to release 53 political prisoners, though countless more remain in prison; some of the 53 were rearrested within days of the initial release.
Travel restrictions were further eased this month, and both countries have reopened their embassies. Obama has eased sanctions by allowing American travelers to use credit cards on the island, increase the amount of dollars they can spend and Cuban products they can bring back, and allow airlines to fly commercially to Cuba.
In short, Obama has eased sanctions as far as he legally could to allow the greatest infusion of hard currency into Cuba. The only thing standing in Obama’s way of full, free trade and normalization is the embargo whose repeal would require an act of Congress.
Which brings us back to the original point: why should Americans oppose lifting the embargo?
To fully explain why Americans should object to lifting the embargo on Cuba, let us dissect the previously discussed arguments proponents of lifting it often make:
“The embargo is a Cold War relic that has not worked after five and a half decades.”
FALSE: The embargo has indeed worked. The original purpose of the embargo as initially established by President Eisenhower and strengthened by President Kennedy was not to promote regime change necessarily, but rather: 1) to punish the regime for the single largest uncompensated taking of American property by a foreign government in history, which in today’s dollars would equal about $7 billion, and 2) so that the Castro regime would not be able to sell Cuban goods produced or derived from stolen American property. Given that confiscated properties included vast amounts of land and countless factories and businesses that produced a wide variety of goods, it would stand to reason that many Cuban products would directly or indirectly be derived from stolen American property, not to mention property stolen from Cuban-Americans.
“The embargo only hurts the Cuban people who suffer the shortages that these restrictions impose on them. Government officials and tourists live it up, while the Cuban people are starved of food and basic goods.”
FALSE: Every other country in the world freely trades with Cuba. Furthermore, the embargo actually does not prohibit Americans from selling agricultural or medical products to Cuba. In fact the United States was its third largest trading partner in 2014. Therefore, to say that the Cuban people are being starved of food and basic goods because of the embargo is utterly false. Average Cubans earning $20 per month lack the purchasing power due to the failed socialist system foisted on them. The regime decides who gets what, which is why its officials and the tourists they financially benefit from have it well. The shortages currently ravaging resource and oil-rich Venezuela, which has no US embargo, further prove that failed socialist economics—not U.S. foreign policy—is to blame for shortages in Cuba.
The provision of the embargo that American crony capitalists utterly detest is the requirement that all Cuban purchases of U.S. products be made up-front, in cash. The embargo’s requirement of up-front payment for U.S. products makes sense when dealing with a deadbeat like Cuba. If the embargo was lifted, Cuba could legally apply for credit from U.S. and U.S.-backed international financial institutions such as the Export-Import Bank of the United States (if reauthorized), the IMF, and World Bank. Therefore, any credit extended to Cuba would ultimately be backed by the U.S. government (read: taxpayers) in case of a default, thus posing little to no risk to America’s crony capitalists eager to make a quick buck in Cuba. This, alone, should be a reason why no American taxpayer, much less a conservative or libertarian should support lifting the embargo on Cuba while it is run by an economically reckless regime notorious for defaulting on its debts. No American taxpayer should ever be forced to subsidize or bail out Cuba’s Stalinist despots.
“We should lift the embargo so we can flood the island with capitalism and dollars, thereby showing the Cuban people what they’ve been missing all these years so that they will rise up and demand change.”
FACT: The entire world currently does business with Cuba, including Canadian and European investors who have pumped millions of dollars into business ventures there. As such, the island is already being “flooded with capitalism” and hard currency, except it’s flowing into the wrong hands. Unsurprisingly, this increased business activity has done little to improve the lives of average Cubans or encourage them to “rise up and demand change.” In fact, average Cubans are 30 percent poorer than they were twenty years ago.
Cuba requires foreigners who do business on the island do so almost exclusively with the government or its authorized apparatchiks. This is not free market capitalism. The “vibrant private entrepreneurs” that Obama and Kerry have touted are usually tourist-catering street vendors with no realistic shot at meaningful upward mobility. Dissidents or anyone critical of the regime are outright banned from doing business, much less with foreigners. Entrepreneurs who fall out of favor with the regime or who otherwise outlive their usefulness are shut down and oftentimes arrested—including foreign investors. Indeed, there are several cases of foreigners who after investing millions in Cuba were summarily arrested on trumped up charges, served years in a Cuban prison, and of course, ultimately had their investments seized by the regime. Such are the risks of doing business with Castro.
There are a host of reasons to oppose normalization with the 57 year-old, unelected regime in Cuba, which not only continues to deprive its citizens of basic civil and human rights, but has actually increased its repression since the restoration of diplomatic ties was announced. Many of us care about those issues, but sadly too many engaged in the current debate regarding Cuba do not. Instead, they are satisfied with sacrificing Cubans and adding them to the long list of the world’s unfortunates whose basic human rights are dismissed as inevitable collateral damage to a “complicated situation.”
Normalization will benefit only the regime and America’s small crony capitalist class whose lobbyists in Washington will fight any change that threatens their dealings with Castro, including democratic change. Meanwhile, American taxpayers will be left to bear the cost of subsidizing a sworn enemy-for-life in its ongoing efforts to inflict harm on the United States.
I hear the Dominican Republic makes great rum and cigars for a much better price.
Follow Christian Cámara on Twitter: @reaganista.
[Originally published at Reaganista.com; used with permission.]