The Cuba Fallacy
Lifting the U.S. embargo would not bring democracy to Havana.
by Jaime Daremblum
June 21, 2012 - 12:00 am
Stop me if you've heard this before: "The U.S. embargo against Cuba is
the single biggest reason that Washington and Havana do not enjoy better
relations. If we want the island nation to become a democracy, we should
drop sanctions and pursue a policy of aggressive engagement."
It is a simple and seductive argument, which explains why so many people
have embraced it. Unfortunately, it is based on a fallacious reading of
history and a naïve understanding of the Cuban dictatorship.
Over the past four decades, every American president who has pursued a
serious rapprochement with Havana — Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bill
Clinton, and Barack Obama — has been left shaking his head in
frustration. Whenever the United States has extended an olive branch,
the Castro regime has responded with an act of foreign aggression (such
as lending military support to Communist forces in Africa or killing
four Cuban-American pilots) or domestic repression (such as jailing a
U.S. citizen on bogus espionage charges) so provocative that it
effectively ruined any chance of détente.
President Obama's experience is instructive. In April 2009, he relaxed
U.S. sanctions on travel and remittances to Cuba. Then, a few days
later, in his speech at the opening ceremony of the Summit of the
Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, he emphasized his sincere determination
to improve bilateral ties. "The United States seeks a new beginning with
Cuba," Obama said. "I'm prepared to have my administration engage with
the Cuban government on a wide range of issues — from drugs, migration,
and economic issues, to human rights, free speech, and democratic
reform. Now, let me be clear, I'm not interested in talking just for the
sake of talking. But I do believe that we can move U.S.-Cuban relations
in a new direction."
The Castro brothers had other plans. In December of that same year, Alan
Gross, a USAID contractor working in Cuba, was arrested and charged with
spying. His real "crime" was helping the island's tiny Jewish population
obtain Internet access. Last year, Gross received a 15-year prison
sentence. He remains in jail today, despite an aggressive U.S. campaign
to secure his release. According to his lawyer, the 63-year-old Gross
now "has difficulty walking and has developed a mass behind his right
shoulder blade." State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland has said
that he "is no longer able to walk in his cell." (This past weekend, the
Cuban government finally handed over his medical records.)
Gross has essentially become a hostage — a human bargaining chip that
Raúl Castro & Co. can use to extract concessions from Washington. Former
New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who has tried to broker Gross's
release, claims that Havana would be willing to exchange him for several
Cuban intelligence agents currently imprisoned in the United States. Yet
it is unclear whether the Castro regime would actually endorse such a
prisoner swap. Moreover, from a U.S. perspective, trading multiple
foreign agents who were conducting illegal espionage on behalf of an
anti-American dictatorship, in return for a single U.S. humanitarian
worker who was unjustly and outrageously detained, would set a terrible
Gross's initial arrest in 2009 came amid a broader government crackdown
on dissent, and recent events confirm that opposition leaders remain
under siege. Earlier this month, a prominent Cuban dissident known as
"Antúnez" testified before the U.S. Senate via video link, and then was
promptly arrested and savagely attacked by Cuban security forces.
According to the Miami Herald, Antúnez was "beaten and sprayed with
pepper gas in a police jail cell," before eventually being released.
How could the United States ever have warm relations with a government
that would brazenly and brutally assault a democracy activist two days
after he offered Senate testimony? For that matter, if the Castro regime
really did want a better relationship with Washington, why would it
engage in such nakedly hostile behavior?
Which brings us back to the much-maligned U.S. embargo. It is deeply
unpopular throughout Latin America? Yes. Is it the largest barrier to a
major thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations? No. The largest barrier is the Cuban
regime itself, which refuses to implement the most basic political
reforms or respect the most fundamental human rights. Indeed, for all
the hoopla over Raúl Castro's modest economic reforms — which Cuban
dissident economist Oscar Chepe has described as "too little, too
limited and too late" — his government is still among the most
repressive on earth. When Pope Benedict XVI visited the island in March,
a senior Cuban official told reporters, "We are updating our economic
model, but we are not talking about political reform."
Some embargo critics argue that American tourism and investment would
topple the dictatorship or compel it to allow free elections. These
critics don't appreciate the nature of Cuban tyranny. If the Communist
leadership doesn't want political reform, there will be no political
reform. Just ask all the European countries that have been sending
tourists and investment to Cuba for many years. According to the
European Union's website, "The EU is Cuba's largest trading partner,
with a third of all trade, almost one half of foreign direct investment
and more than half of all tourists coming from Europe."
I cannot put it better than journalist Charles Lane did in a 1999 New
There will be no meaningful thaw with Cuba, and certainly no
democratic opening there, until a Cuban Gorbachev emerges. Meanwhile,
perhaps we should make a standing offer to Fidel Castro: We'll lift the
embargo, provide massive aid to rebuild the island, and give back the
U.S. base at Guantanamo if he'll simply hold a free, multiparty,
internationally monitored national election, just like the ones they
have in every other Latin American country. Let him turn that offer down
and then try to explain to his people, and the world, why he did.
Raúl Castro is not the Cuban Gorbachev. But when he (age 81) and Fidel
(nearly 86) finally die, genuine political reformers may emerge and take
power. Only then will a true U.S.-Cuban détente be possible.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica's ambassador to the United
States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American
Studies at the Hudson Institute.