The Cuban leadership in Havana continues to try to woo the U.S. administration into providing unilateral concessions to Cuba. The embargo and the travel ban will be ended, they believe, as a result of internal pressures in the U.S. and a more accommodating Obama administration.
Yet, after seven years in power, Gen. Raúl Castro is unwilling to chart a radically new course for Cuba or offer meaningful concessions. Expectations remain that he will follow the Chinese or the Vietnamese model and even find an accommodation with the United States.
We seem to cling to an outdated economic determinism in trying to understand events in other societies and the motivations of their leaders. Despite economic difficulties, Raúl Castro does not seem ready to provide irreversible concessions for a U.S.-Cuba normalization. He may release and exile some political prisoners; he may offer more consumer goods and food to tranquilize the Cuban population; but no major structural reforms that would open the Cuban economy and no political openings.
It should have been obvious from the beginning that the Castro brothers were not interested in friendly relations with the United States. In spite of U.S. calls for moderation, the Castro brothers carried out public executions in the island. In public speeches Castro insulted President Eisenhower and followed them with expropriations of American properties. Finally in July 1960, Eisenhower was left with no option but to cut the Cuban sugar quota. By then the Cubans had already arranged for the Soviet Union to buy Cuban sugar.
During the Cuban missile crisis, Castro sent a message to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev calling for a preemptive nuclear strike against the U.S. mainland. Even the Soviets were shocked by the plea.
In the 1970’s President Jimmy Carter tried to normalize relations. He hoped to turn an enemy into a friend. When he was getting too close for comfort, Castro offered to send this country several thousand Cubans who had been given asylum in the Peruvian embassy. Ships were invited to pick up “political prisoners and dissidents” at the Port of Mariel. More than 120,000 Cubans left. Included in the group of people seeking freedom Castro released some of the most vicious criminals in his prisons; not an act of friendship and one more factor that caused Carter to become a one term president.
President Clinton’s experience with Cuba was also problematic. Clinton was expected to veto the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, which codified the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Before he could act, the Cuban Air Force shot down two civilian planes over international waters, killing three Americans and one Cuban-American. Clinton had no choice; he signed the bill.
President Obama’s policy on Cuba seems more puzzling. Early in his administration he lifted the limit for remittances to Cuba and increased the frequency of visits to family members, both major unilateral acts of good will towards an enemy. Castro (this time it was Raúl) responded by jailing Alan Gross for up to 15 years in prison for taking computers to the small Jewish-Cuban community on the island. Once again, not the act of a regime seeking to improve relations with an adversary.
The Obama administration should heed the lessons of the past. Cuba under Raúl Castro remains a failed totalitarian state encrusted in the anti-American policies of the Cold War.
Raúl has been a loyal follower and cheerleader of Fidel’s anti-American policies and military interventions in Africa and elsewhere. In 1962, interpreting President Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs failure as a sign of weakness, Raúl and Khrushchev conspired to surreptitiously introduce nuclear missiles into Cuba. Raúl supervised the Americas Department in Cuba approving support for terrorist, guerrilla and revolutionary groups throughout Latin America.
Unfortunately, not all international problems can be solved through negotiation or with economic incentives. Some require significant patience until the leadership changes. The Cuban case seems one of these.
Carlos Gutierrez was secretary of commerce during the George W. Bush administration. Jaime Suchlicki is director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami.