“What did we ever do to deserve the embargo?”
Our tour guide asked us this question in a small group on the bus one day. Since I was the resident capitalist, everyone was waiting to hear what I had to say. Sitting and squirming, my response was less than stellar. It was some sad-sack tome on the value of individual achievement and the market system and how the embargo is the most un-capitalist of measures that hurt everyone. Everyone nodded in acknowledgement of my answer.
This was not what I wanted to say.
I think he deserves a better answer. That answer can also say a lot about post-Castro Cuba—and what can, or will, happen when there is no Castro in power (Fidel, Raul or otherwise).
First of all, the question he asked is the wrong question. No one in their right mind would ever say that anyone, let alone the Cuban people, DESERVE to have their market freedom, their economy, their resources strangled by an embargo. It’s a straw-man argument that forces cheap sympathy yet does little to resolve the conflict.
This should be the better question to ask: “To whose benefit is it to keep the embargo going?”
In both Cuba and here in the States, this is a far more troublesome question, as it often brings the conflicting needs and ideologies of disparate groups into greater focus. A whole list of culprits comes to mind: US business, US military, the Cuban exiles, the Cuban government, the Cuban Communist Party, the Castros, the European corporations in cahoots with the Cuban government.
None of them are completely blameless.
The US and the Exiles
Let’s start with our homegrown suspects—and none have beaten a dead horse for as long as the US military.
For half a century, the US has enforced an economic embargo on the island in a futile attempt to “starve” Cuba into regime change. Even after an ever-flexible authoritarian apparatus and a flood of European companies filling the void, the powers-that-be still insist that this is the best way.
Contrary to what the left thinks, the great American capitalists are NOT pleased with this arrangement. Cuba is the largest market in the Caribbean, and the great US companies are shut out of that action. Granted, their Cuban infrastructure was confiscated during the Revolution, which leaves a bad taste. Yet 50 years later, after European companies managed a foothold in Cuba, shouldn’t some Yankee firms go in and play ball with the Commies if that gives them the future “advanced market entry”?
We’ve been in the embargo business since 1807, and almost all have been unmitigated disasters. Our CIA’s attempts to assassinate Castro—all 638 of them—prove that a Skulls and Bones secret handshake and a Brooks Brothers bow tie make shitty hired killers. So why has the US government not taken the hint? Why have not changed course and forged a new direction in foreign policy?
According to many, especially on the left, much of the reason lies with the powerful, and often troublesome, bloc of Cuban exiles that have come to the United States since the 1960s.
Now, I’m not going to knock the exiles. I have friends who are either exiles themselves or the children of exiles. Most of these people came here for legitimate reasons: escaping political repression, economic opportunity (largely based on the lack of economic opportunity in post-revolutionary Cuba), etc. It would be hypocritical of me to smack down another group of immigrants when I (like most Americans) come from foreign stock as well.
Yet as I look at the organizations and politicians that represent the Cuban community, something troubles me. One is the lack of realistic expectations—and often for nefarious reasons. Though not true of most groups, it’s safe to say that an “embargo industry” has arisen among the myriad groups that represent Cuban exiles. From the benign to the militant, they see the embargo not only as necessary for regime change in their homeland, but also a raison d’etre for their own existence.
Complicating this is the expectations of a post-Castro Cuba: a Cuba where the clock is turned back. This has taken form in two ways: calls for repatriation of confiscated property and nostalgia for the Batista years before 1959.
Here, I’ll be blunt. Cuba will never, and I mean never, return to the days before 1959. Too much has happened, and besides, that era had enough ill will and official malfeasance to negate any misty-eyed feelings in Miami. Whatever happens after the Castros will have to deal with the institutional remains of the Cuban Revolution, not sweep them clean.
That said, reclaiming property and businesses lost in the confiscations of 1959-1962 is a pipe dream. The return of state-run enterprises to private entities will be a slow and painful process in it of itself. 50 years later, I have serious doubts that the absentee former landlords of these properties will be welcomed back to Cuba with open arms.
Below is a Dutch documentary about how Cuban groups are preparing for a post-Castro Cuba.
There are extensive plans over what the government and society of Cuba will look like in the next phase. Yet many exiles see themselves as coming back to “govern” Cuba when the change occurs. While some Cubans may welcome them (Cubans in the US provide millions in aid to their compatriots on the island, after all), there will undoubtedly be resentment among native Cubans towards exiles who invariably had resources to leave the island, instead of suffering the consequences of the revolution as they did.
After half a century, these exiles could be seen as merely another foreign interloper. It isn’t certain, but the exiles may be more of a hindrance than a help to post-Castro Cuba.
The Cuban community, before it sets foot on its homeland again, needs to really consider what it can, and what it cannot bring to the table. This involves the inevitable conclusion that not every exile may want to go back.
The biggest assumption about the exile community, and one that has changed over time, is its homogeneity. We are now at least two generations removed from the first generation of exiles in the 1960s, and at least one generation removed from the Marielitos of the 1980s. Younger Cuban-Americans, with little, if any, firsthand knowledge of the island, must have developed attitudes and opinions that have altered the proscribed course of the “exile” mentality.
The embargo, US-Cuban relations, and other issues have divided, rather than united, Cubans of all ages to the point that they will probably no longer be the solid Republican voting bloc that politicians hoped—turning Cubans into (‘gasp!’) just another Hispanic group pandered to by Democrats ad nauseum. In fact, Cuban-Americans, over time, may possibly cease to even call themselves “exiles,” reflecting the reality of living in another country for half a century.
If less and less people want to go back, what incentive is there to open an embargo that gives your group identity, legitimacy and government funding?
The Castros, the PCC and the Euros that Love Them
So as much as there are people that want the embargo to go away (capitalists, leftists, some politicians and some Cuban exiles), there are others that benefit from the blockage (other conservatives, military establishment, most of the Cuban-American contingent in Congress and other Cuban exiles).
Yet before the Venceremos brigade and the editorial board of Mother Jones starts cheering that I’ve joined the barricades, there’s plenty of blame to spread on the other side. In fact, a lions’ share of the blame goes to the dynamic duo that started this whole mess—the Castro brothers.
It is now common knowledge that the US embargo is a huge reason—perhaps the only reason—that the Castros have remained in power for half a century. With an economic embargo, Fidel and company can blame any and all shortcomings of the regime on American aggression. Regardless of the ineptitude of the government, the embargo stands as the great Yankee bogeyman that keeps Cubans, on the surface, loyal to the Communists in general and Fidel in particular.
Don’t just take my word for it. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently stated that the Castros “do not want to see an end to the embargo and do not want to see normalization with the United States, because they would then lose all their excuses for what hasn’t happened in Cuba in the last 50 years.” Former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, wrote in his 2005 book Portraits and Profiles that Castro would be out of power within three months if the embargo was lifted. Aznar’s words carry an interesting weight, considering that Spanish companies have worked extensively with the Cuban government, particularly in tourism.
Along with the Castros, the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) and its apparatus of terror also benefit from economic closure. With an economic embargo comes an embargo of information, the perfect mix for paramilitary thugs to exact fear into the populace. The Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDRs) and the Rapid Response Brigades function because the Cuban people have no independent access to information about any alternative to the status quo.
End the embargo, and the whole house of cards will come tumbling down. Woe to the government spies, snitches and CDR block captains that day. Old scores will be settled, neighbors may turn on each other, and the bloodshed may be too much to comprehend.
However, another wrinkle was added to this tale recently. In order to collect hard currency to maintain their power, Fidel and Raul threw the Communist Manifesto out the window and opened limited investment in Cuba to foreign, non-US companies agreeing to joint ventures with the Cuban government. Companies such as Spanish resort conglomerate Melia and Italian telecommunications giant Telecom Italia snaked into the Cuban economy, creating businesses and infrastructure to pump tourist cash into government coffers. How happy would they be to have an embargo lifted, and Hilton Hotels, Coca-Cola and Verizon nipping at their heels?
The Post-Castro Cuba, more questions than answers
Needless to say, lifting the embargo will be but one element in a process leading to what is widely considered a post-revolutionary Cuba.
The next step involves supplanting the Castro regime. All outside efforts to do so have failed, and the internal opposition is relatively rudderless, divided into factions that seldom work together. An interesting article in the Journal of Democracy highlights the difficulties in creating regime change, even with the lifting of an embargo.
Even with a regime change, however, the massive volume of questions that need to be answered—in a relatively short time—would confound even our founding fathers. Here is but a sampling:
- Would the government maintain its current structure or change to something more in line with new ideologies?
- How would elections and political campaigns work?
- How would political parties organize?
- What would happen to the old PCC? Would it be outlawed, like the Nazi party in Germany, or will it be reorganized as one political party among many?
- Would the PCC have to dismantle its apparatus of intimidation, the CDRs, Rapid Response Brigades, etc., in order to participate in democratic politics?
- What is to become of former officers of the old regime, particularly ones considered “criminals”?
- Would institutions of civil order and public maintenance be maintained?
- What would be the military’s role in this new system?
- How would Cuba re-define its relationship to the United States?
- How would Cuba re-define its relationship to allies of the former government, such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Brazil?
- How can the Cuban economy be changed to a capitalist model? Should it be changed at all, or should there be a hybrid of capitalist and socialist elements?
- If government businesses are to revert to private ownership, how will that process work? Will former party leaders suddenly become billionaires as in Russia? Will workers get first crack at shares in new corporations, with full voting rights to boards of directors as well as executive management?
- What is to become of the business relationships made before the regime change?
- How will services like education and health care—cornerstones of the propaganda of the previous regime—continue in the new system?
- How will taxation work?
- Will “full employment” continue to be the goal, or will the process of job creation and unemployment change?
- How open is “open”? Will information be open and accessible, or will some form of censorship exist?
- What protections for basic rights will exist?
- How will crime, law enforcement and incarceration be affected?
- What is to be done about the “legacy” of the Cuban Revolution? Should it be written out like a Stalinist purge, denounced loudly and openly, or integrated into the narrative of Cuban history, focusing both on accomplishments and failures?
This is but a fraction of the problems that will exist in the post-Castro island. Few of them will be resolved right away, and with all regime changes comes some measure of bloodshed—some more than others. My hope is that the process of transition will be as painless as possible.
However, do not expect a Singapore or a Taiwan overnight: the socialist system will probably be weaned slowly from Cuban society, rather than risking a massive revolution with potentially catastrophic side effects.
Finally, I wanted to get back to the original question about the embargo. The tensions between Cuba and the United States, apart from strict ideology, also amount to a crisis of irrationality. Embargos have a tendency to entrench longstanding hatreds and prejudices, and Cuba is no exception.
The voices of reason and pragmatism, however, have been drowned out in the din of obstructionist rhetoric and ideological saber-rattling.
The need for regime change is evident, at least in my eyes. But I’m not naïve enough to say that a quick insurrection will make things great again. The first step is normalization between the two countries. Let reason and rationality prevail, utilizing points of political and economic convergence, and we the openings can happen sooner rather than later.
For the sake of Cuba and the United States, let’s hope and pray that reason can prevail.
And for all the Cubans in Miami and Union City, time to end with a little nostalgia. Here’s a 1932 travel film about Havana. Note the “newly” constructed Capitol building, as well as the snappy straw hats on the Prado. Enjoy.
The Strange Bedfellows in US Foreign Policy
President Barack Obama meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in June 2009. Today, Egyptians are protesting to remove Mubarak from power. Photo via the San Francisco Sentinel
At one point, the United States, a beacon of democracy and freedom, turned to a despotic, autocratic tyrant for friendship and alliance during a volatile period.
As soon as the situation was resolved, however, that very same despotic regime caused mixed feelings among Americans, often leading to violent confrontation.
By the way, I’m not talking about Egypt.
It was 1778, and a young United States turned to France, an absolute monarchy almost completely anathema to the ideals of the young nation, as an ally in its war for independence against the British Empire.
When that very same regime became engulfed in revolution a decade later, the new regime divided Americans as never before—and confused US foreign policy into a “quasi-war” with France from 1798-1800.
The recent turmoil in Egypt has us looking at the often strange decisions made in the name of national interest. In looking at the protests aimed to oust Hosni Mubarak, many classrooms will be full of questions about the situation. They range from the mundane (“Where is Egypt?”) to the profound (“How can we resolve the situation?”) and even the profoundly dumb (“Who cares about Egypt?”).
Yet one question cannot be avoided: “Why are we friends with a guy like Mubarak in the first place?”
It’s time to teach your kids the painful truth about American diplomacy—it makes for strange bedfellows who tend to stay too long in the sack.
It doesn’t stop at Mubarak and the corpulent king of France. Josef Stalin, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong (once he was dying), the folks in China after Mao kicked the bucket, Ferdinand Marcos, Suharto, the entire Thai government, Ngo Dinh Diem, Syngman Rhee, the assholes after Syngman Rhee, Islam Karimov, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Muhammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, Saddam Hussein (before he got greedy),The Saudi Monarchy, The monarchies of the rest of the Gulf states, Mobutu Sese Seko, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the white regimes in both Rhodesia and South Africa, Rafael Trujillo, Fulgencio Batista, Anastasio Somoza (plus the other Somozas), Manuel Noriega (before he got greedy), Marcos Perez Jimenez, Augusto Pinochet, Hugo Banzer, Alfredo Stroessner and the host of lovable scamps involved in military governments in Brazil and Argentina.
All of these people rotting in hell (we hope). All of these people received, at one point or another, the blessing, cooperation, and (the important part) funding from the most powerful democracy on Earth.
We were often taught that the United States was “special” amongst its brethren nations in that its high moral purpose and philosophical vision would mean its actions would also be of such moral stature. The US wouldn’t stoop to make treaties with dictatorships, nor “torture” prisoners for information: Americans “just don’t do that sort of thing.”
Well, not only do we do “that sort of thing,” but we’re real good at it—since we’ve been doing it since our founding.
Foreign relations, one learns quickly, has very little to do with lofty philosophical ideals or moral imperatives. To be sure, the base of diplomacy lies more in the market bazaar than the debating hall: economics and mutual security drive national ties far more than shared ideology.
Today’s diplomatic landscape certainly owes much to our wallets. In the United States, most people worry about gas and consumer prices. Thus, we make nice with two nasty regimes that take care of our needs. The Saudis and their autocratic buddies in the Gulf take care to juice up our SUVs and assorted land monsters. The Chinese and their sundry client states around the South China Sea make sure your little brats get everything they want for Christmas—as well as stock your shelves at Wal-Mart and Target.
During the Cold War, the United States’ biggest diplomatic priorities were thwarting Communism and spreading American ideals—in that order. To wit, many of the people we cozied up to from the 1940s to the 1990s shared only an intense anti-Communist streak. Being that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” the US looked the other way as dissidents were slaughtered in soccer stadiums, tortured with electrodes, and subjected to inhuman conditions while everything, at least on the surface, looked rosy.
As far as Egypt goes, the mutual enemy isn’t Communism but rather Islamic fundamentalism. The Muslim Brotherhood, an illegal Islamist group that allegedly masterminded the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 (leading to Mubarak’s accession), is the great bogeyman of the Egyptian government. Mubarak fears that his departure would cede Egypt to the Brotherhood, thus plunging the ancient country into the darkness of an Islamic state. I’m not completely convinced this is the case, considering the impact of the military on the country, but it’s been reason enough for the United States to stand by Mubarak for three decades.
The United States is not alone in allying itself with distasteful regimes. Other countries, notably in Europe, have done the same thing. To an extent, these connections provide the United States with many of the products, materials and resources we need at the prices we want. The average American has, on the whole, benefitted at least economically from these questionable partnerships.
Yet as you think about the people risking their lives in Cairo, Alexandria and all over Egypt, one can’t help wondering: is it worth it?
There’s no easy answer to that. We cannot judge all foreign policy as a whole: relations with each country have their own characteristics. Yet the better students can see how all aspects of national identity—economic, military, financial and ethical—affect international relations, all the better for the American diplomats of the future.
The following are some resources about US foreign policy with dictators as well as about the Egypt crisis:
An article from Salon.com featuring three authoritarian regimes that are friendly with the US.
A Report about US policy towards dictatorships from the Cato Institute made during the height of the Cold War in the 1980s.
A 2002 Global Issues article about support for dicatorships and terrorism.
YouTube compilations of news coverage of the Egyptian protests.
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