Why do people of good faith radically disagree on whether diplomatic and economic engagement with the Castro dictatorship in Cuba is a good policy or bad? Worse, why do they launch petards at each other when they hold different positions?
I start from the premise that a prosperous, peaceful, free, democratic Cuba is the common long-term goal of the Cuban people and the Cuban diaspora. And that, if in the long term establishing diplomatic relations advances this goal, then we should support the new U.S. policy of normalization.
The most extreme critics of this policy dispose of reasonable discourse outright. It’s patently clear, they say, Cuba is a brutal dictatorship that stifles dissent, imprisons opponents and imposes strict controls on the press, commerce, and communications.
What’s more, they say, the benefit of establishing diplomatic relations will disproportionally favor Cuba’s ruling elite. Even more irksome, President Obama is a sophomoric negotiator who failed to extract meaningful concessions from Cuba.
These arguments appear — at least in the short term — to be powerful and incontestable.
But what if we take a longer-term perspective? The Castros have been able to survive because they inoculated themselves against U.S. power by keeping the U.S.’ nose out of their business and their politics.
Meanwhile, a lot is going on in Cuba — wholly independent of the exchange of ambassadors. Cuba’s government has in the last few years implemented five major changes that are radically transforming the country’s economy and social landscape. It now allows: the use of cell phones (within the country and the establishments of wifi hot spots); cars to be bought and sold; homes to be bought and sold by Cubans; restaurants to have up to 50 seats and hundreds of different types of workers to become independent cuentapropistas; the “repatriation” of Cubans outside the island, which makes it possible for Cuban Americans in Miami and throughout the world to also purchase homes and cars on the island.
And more reforms are on the way, maybe even easy access the Internet.
Will these reforms cause Cuba to flip into the U.S. orbit? Nobody knows. At any point, the Cuban government could reverse all these policy changes and isolate the island again.
My view, however, is that what is going on in Cuba is simply unstoppable. How do you explain to the hundreds of thousands self-employed artisans, painters, masons, carpenters, taxi drivers, restaurateurs, manicurists, and hairdressers that they are not allowed to go on with their entrepreneurial activities? Neither a new U.S. president, nor Raúl Castro’s successor will be able to stop the growth and influences of Cuba’s burgeoning private sector.
Now, Raúl Castro, the pragmatist, not Fidel, the ideological icon, is in power. Does this mean that we should oppose and criticize those that hold the opposite view? No, those who oppose normalization, fight for the rights of dissidents and hold the regime accountable for its excesses and violations should be lauded. They are the allies of Cubans inside and outside the island who fight for Cuba’s freedom every day. By the same token, those who support normalization because they view it as the best long-term strategy to support the same objectives should not be demonized by those who focus on the here and now.
Modesto A. Maidique is the Alvah Chapman, Jr. Chaired Professor of Leadership at Florida International University, where he served as president for more than 20 years.