Time to rethink ‘concession’ mentality on Cuba
By Ric Herrero, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Ric Herrero is the executive director of #CubaNow, a
Miami-based democracy advocacy group. The views expressed are the
Late last month, 44 former high-level U.S. officials and thought
leaders, including prominent members of the Cuban-American community,
signed a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to revise our Cuba
policy to allow Americans to better engage with the island’s growing
civil society, particularly its fledgling entrepreneurial sector.
The logic behind the letter is simple: by empowering the Cuban people
with more access to U.S. contacts and resources, they can create greater
freedoms for themselves.
Unfortunately, that concept appears to be too difficult to understand
for those who depend on keeping things just the way they are. Almost
immediately, the predictable responses began to flow from a tag team of
shrill hardliners in Washington DC and Havana, all trying to protect the
In Washington, the pro-embargo lobby – or what is left of them – began
to mischaracterize the letter as a “concession” to the regime, and
cherry picked quotes by some dissidents and exile leaders to make it
seem as if there is widespread opposition to increasing support for
Cuban civil society.
In Havana, the supposed beneficiaries of these “concessions” reacted in
equally predictable fashion. As they’ve done every time there’s been a
potential thaw, the Cuban regime’s hardliners are going out of their way
to thwart political momentum in the U.S. for a new approach. Let’s face
it, one of the regime’s favorite strategies is to blame American policy
for all of their own shortcomings. It has helped them stay in power. If
they wanted better relations, they would release Alan Gross, or stop
beating up the Ladies in White, or cease detaining pro-rights activists,
or loosen customs and import restrictions. They haven’t, of course,
because like the hardliners here, they want everything their way.
Both sides have something else in common – they will twist anything to
fit their view of the world, even when it makes no sense. Washington
hardliners are quick to pose for photo ops or send press releases
praising the bravery of Cuban activists. Yet by denying those activists
real support, and refusing to accept that civil society needs economic
resources to thrive, they are doing them a disservice.
To suggest that an increase in the flow of contacts and resources to the
Cuban people is a “concession” to the Castro brothers plays directly
into the hands of the most unyielding forces within the Cuban
government. As WLRN’s Tim Padgett noted last month, “Incredibly,
[hardliners] somehow convinced themselves that denying Cuba’s fledgling
entrepreneurs more seed money, cell phones and sage advice – that
keeping them in the micro-economic Middle Ages – is the best way to
change Cuba.” It isn’t.
The “concessions” talking point might be a cute sound bite, but it’s
wrong. For decades, the American people have been force-fed the baseless
notion that any reform of Cuba policy, no matter how practical, is
tantamount to rewarding the regime for its iron grip over the island.
In fact, easing the embargo to support the island’s nascent
entrepreneurial class puts more pressure on the Cuban regime to respect
human rights because they have a stronger independent private sector and
civil society with which to contend. And if the argument from hardliners
is that we should not support entrepreneurs because there can be no
private sector without rights, then that would mean we couldn’t support
dissidents either. We must do both.
Dissidents are battling to create a better and more inclusive future
where their families and fellow Cubans can be free. They do so in simple
but powerful ways – a peaceful street protest, a petition tens of
thousands strong, a blog post, an independent media outlet. The same
logic applies to self-employed entrepreneurs, and to every single Cuban
seeking to increase their independence from the state, whether they are
a hairdresser, a computer programmer, or a taxi driver.
Entrepreneurs may not be allowed to legally incorporate, or to have
foreigners legally “invest” in their businesses, but they are fighting
every day to gain these rights. How? By using remittances, mostly from
the United States, as seed capital. By hiring and paying salaries far
above those of state workers. By taking government officials to court
over zoning, licensing and property disputes. They are conjuring every
creative interpretation of Cuban law to scale their businesses or press
for new categories of self-employment that were previously prohibited.
We should encourage that, not stand in its way.
After 54 years it’s time to call a spade a shovel. The only real
concession the United States can make to the Cuban regime is to continue
to treat Castro’s favorite propaganda tool as a sacred cow. We can do
CNN’s Jason Miks
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