The symbolic hoisting of the Stars and Stripes by U.S. Marines — the same men who lowered the flag more than five decades ago — over the newly proclaimed U.S. Embassy in Havana on Friday will signal the start of a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations that holds the promise of a better future for the Cuban people.
When President Obama announced Dec. 17 that the two countries had embarked on a path to restore the full diplomatic relations that were broken more than a half-century ago, we labeled it a “roll of the dice.”And so it remains — a work in progress that has been painfully slow on those issues that mean the most.
Mr. Obama said the new policy was based on the belief that, “We can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement.” It was gamble, but one worth taking in an effort to break the stalemate that has kept Cubans frozen in an economic and political time warp that stifles their freedom, self-expression and creativity.
To date, dictator Raúl Castro has shown no sign of relenting on the human-rights front. According to Cuba’s Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, there have been more than 3,000 political detentions since the thaw. There will be more, no doubt, because Cuba’s people feel emboldened to challenge a regime that dares not loosen the restrictions of a police state lest it all come tumbling down suddenly.
But the new relationship will give American diplomats greater leeway to reach out to dissidents. Instead of asking permission to travel around the island, diplomats simply have to notify the government of their travel plans. Not ideal, but then Cuba is not a free country. That’s the whole point of the new policy, to achieve by engagement — soft power, if you will — what hard power could not achieve during the Cold War and beyond.
Secretary of State John Kerry has insisted that human rights will remain at the top of the agenda. The United States must show it is keeping up the pressure, especially in the face of criticism that Cuba’s regime hasn’t given up much, if anything. But let’s not kid ourselves: It took six months for the United States and Cuba to negotiate the relatively straightforward matter of restoring full diplomatic relations. It will take much longer to make progress on those issues that so deeply divide us.
In the meantime, there are other, little-discussed changes that could have a significant impact on the Cuban people if the government could be persuaded to put them into effect. Most are in the realm of economic policy. As the economy becomes more open — it’s already happening — Cubans’ entrepreneurial spirit will give them a greater degree of economic freedom and, thus, pave the way for a political opening.
The government should be encouraged to take steps to allow private business to flourish: Get rid of the parallel dollar market that works to the disadvantage of ordinary Cubans as it enriches government coffers. Update the primitive banking system so the government cannot freeze dollar deposits on a whim. Update the civil-court system so small entrepreneurs can resolve conflicts with the government in a fair, impartial manner. And, for heaven’s sake, allow Cuban workers of foreign businesses to be paid their full wages in a foreign currency so that the government does not reap the benefit.
The final goal is political freedom, with everything that implies. It’s not going to happen overnight. But we have no doubt that this will, indeed, be the ultimate outcome.