Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez died, and Raúl Castro is searching for “investors” in Cuba. Chávez spent billions of Venezuela’s petro-dollars shoring up Cuba’s economy but Venezuela’s new leaders may not be as beneficent. Venezuela may cut off its Cuban subsidy, just as new Russian leaders did after the Soviet Union’s demise.
American taxpayers are at the top of Castro’s list, but can the Cuban communist government cash in on its years of political theater proclaiming itself the victim of American economic aggression while running its own economy into the ground and training and financing anti-American insurgencies around the world?
Perhaps it can, given that the collective U.S. memory is rather short if not wholly forgiving.
Earlier this year, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy visited the Cuban dictator and returned home saying this is the time “to overcome continuing obstacles” and “ to improve relations” because that would be in the “best interests of both countries.” The senator means well, but his statements cry out for a more detailed appraisal of U.S.-Cuban relations.
The real questions are: Improve relations for what purpose? And under what conditions? It might be in America’s best interests to improve relations with North Korea, Syria and Iran too, but the obstacles standing in the way are similar to those in Cuba. There is no quid pro quo their leaders are willing to offer.
Granted that while in Cuba, Sen. Leahy managed to wrangle permission from Gen. Castro to visit Alan Gross, a subcontractor with the U.S.Agency for International Development, who is serving a 15-year prison sentence. Gross after-the-fact “crime” was giving a laptop computer and satellite telephone to a Jewish organization seeking access to the Internet.
Gross is innocent and also quite ill. Amnesty International reports he’s lost more than 100 pounds in prison, and he has developed a growth that may be cancerous. Havana won’t allow an American physician chosen by his family to see him.
There are others. Amnesty International says that Calixto Martinez, a Cuban independent journalist — a reporter not working for state-run media — was jailed when he went to Havana’s international airport to ask about a shipment of cholera medication sent by the World Health Organization. He has not been charged nor had a trial. Havana does not want tourists to hear about a cholera outbreak.
But, back to the benefits of lifting what remains of the U.S. embargo against the Castros’ dynasty: Cuba is broke and has suspended payments to many creditors.
There is no ban on American companies selling foodstuffs or medicines to Cuba, which they do on a “cash-and-carry” basis. But Washington won’t provide credit to Cuba, i.e., absorb the loss if the regime fails to pay its suppliers. Thus American companies selling to Cuba get paid and American taxpayers aren’t on the hook when the regime fails to pay what it owes.
Individually, Cubans have no “purchasing power” to speak of. The government is the island’s only “employer” and pays workers the equivalent of $20 a month. Except for cigars, Cuba now has very little to sell to anyone. For 200 years, the engine of Cuba’s economy was its sugar industry. It is now in shambles due to “state planning.”
Lastly, the United States lists Cuba as a state-sponsor of international terrorism. It does so, despite the best efforts of Ana Belen Montes, a high-ranking Defense Intelligence Agency analyst, who presented Havana as peace-loving and no threat to anyone. Montes was a spy for Cuba. She pleaded guilty and is now in a federal penitentiary. Her “reports” are still used by Castro’s advocates.
It is difficult to improve relations with dictatorships that deny human rights, ban labor unions and abuse and jail peaceful dissidents for talking about democracy. Visiting members of European parliaments have been arbitrarily arrested in Cuba.
President Obama tried unilaterally to extend a “hand of friendship” without success. Today Havana wants money, not a meaningful dialogue that might lead to a “transition.”
Like Sen. Leahy, I wish things could be different, but that requires a demonstrable Castro initiative to change the nature of his rule in Cuba.
Frank Calzon is executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba in Washington.