U.S. embargo of Cuba only helped Castros hold on to power

The historic visit of a sitting U.S. president to Havana — which should have come a half-century sooner — will almost surely hasten the day when Cubans are free from the Castro government’s suffocating repression.

President Obama’s whirlwind trip is the culmination of his common-sense revamping of U.S. policy toward Cuba. One outdated, counterproductive relic of the Cold War remains — the economic embargo forbidding most business ties with the island nation — and the Republican-controlled Congress won’t even consider repealing it. But Obama, using his executive powers, has been able to re-establish full diplomatic relations, practically eliminate travel restrictions and substantially weaken the embargo’s grip.

All of which is long overdue. The United States first began to squeeze the Castro government, with the hope of forcing regime change, in 1960. It should be a rule of thumb that if a policy is an utter failure for more than 50 years, it’s time to try something else.

I say this as someone with no illusions about President Raul Castro, the spectral but still-powerful Fidel Castro or the authoritarian system they created and wish to perpetuate.

Hours before Obama’s arrival Sunday, police and security agents roughly arrested and hauled away members of the Ladies in White dissident group as they conducted their weekly protest march; this time, U.S. network news crews happened to be on hand to witness the ritualized crackdown.

I wrote a book about Cuba, and each time I went to the island for research I gained more respect and admiration for the Cuban people — and more contempt for the regime that so cynically and capriciously smothers their dreams. Those 10 trips convinced me, however, that the U.S. policy of prohibiting economic and social contact between Americans and Cubans was, to the Castro brothers, the gift that kept on giving.

I saw how the “menace” of an aggressive, threatening neighbor to the north was used as a justification for repression. We’d love to have freedom of the press, freedom of association and freedom of assembly, the government would say, but how can we leave our beloved nation so open, and so vulnerable, when the greatest superpower on earth is trying to destroy our heroic revolution?

Most of the Cubans I met were not fooled by such doublespeak. But they did have a nationalistic love for their country, and their nation was, indeed, under economic siege.

There are those who argue that Obama could have won more concessions from the Castro regime in exchange for improved relations. But this view ignores the fact that our posture of unmitigated hostility toward Cuba did more harm to U.S. interests than good. Relaxing travel restrictions for U.S. citizens can only help flood the island with American ideas and values. Permitting such an influx could be the biggest risk the Castro brothers have taken since they led a ragtag band of guerrillas into the Sierra Maestra Mountains to make a revolution.

Why would they now take this gamble? Because they have no choice. The Castro regime survived the collapse of the Soviet Union — and the end of huge annual subsidies from the Eastern Bloc — but the Cuban economy sank into depression. Copious quantities of Venezuelan oil, provided by strongman Hugo Chavez (who was Fidel Castro’s protege), provided a respite. But now Chavez is gone, Venezuela is an economic ruin and Cuba has no choice but to monetize the resource it has in greatest abundance, human capital. From the Castros’ point of view, better relations with the United States must now seem unavoidable.

It is possible that Raul Castro, who has promised to resign in 2018, will seek to move the country toward the Chinese model: a free-market economic system overseen by an authoritarian one-party government. Would this fully satisfy those who want to see a free Cuba? No. Would it be a tremendous improvement over the poverty and oppression Cubans suffer today? Absolutely.

Fidel Castro will be 90 in August; Raul is just five years younger. At some point in the not too distant future, we will see whether Castroism can survive without a living Castro. Anyone who wants U.S. policymakers to have influence when that question arises should applaud Obama’s initiatives.

And speaking of applause, did you see the rapturous welcome the president and his family received in Havana? Cubans seem to have a much more clear-eyed — and hopeful — view than Obama’s shortsighted critics.

Eugene Robinson’s email address is eugenerobinson@washpost.com.

Talk to us

> Give us your news tips.

> Send us a letter to the editor.

> More Herald contact information.

More in Opinion

April 14, 2024: Follow the White Bronco
Editorial cartoons for Saturday, April 13

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Liz Skinner, right, and Emma Titterness, both from Domestic Violence Services of Snohomish County, speak with a man near the Silver Lake Safeway while conducting a point-in-time count Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024, in Everett, Washington. The man, who had slept at that location the previous night, was provided some food and a warming kit after participating in the PIT survey. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Editorial: Among obstacles, hope to curb homelessness

Panelists from service providers and local officials discussed homelessness’ interwoven challenges.

Comment: Rule must change to allow dialysis as end-of-life care

An outdated rule may change to allow patients in palliative care to receive the comfort of kidney dialysis.

Comment: County executive should drop rural cluster housing plan

The planning commission rejected the plan to protect commercial forests and limit rural sprawl.

Comment: Over-regulation of AI could hold us back in tech race

Policies that tie the hands of tech innovators threaten the advances we can realize through AI.

Forum: What if Dumbledore supervised Boeing’s production line?

The professor’s advice to Harry Potter was to chose right over easy and quick. Is that what Boeing missed?

Forum: Question for Trump supporters; where lie your loyalties?

Those who would vote for a would-be dictator need to consider their bond to their nation’s ideals.

toon
Editorial cartoons for Friday, April 12

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

FILE - In this photo taken Oct. 2, 2018, semi-automatic rifles fill a wall at a gun shop in Lynnwood, Wash. Gov. Jay Inslee is joining state Attorney General Bob Ferguson to propose limits to magazine capacity and a ban on the sale of assault weapons. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Editorial: ‘History, tradition’ poor test for gun safety laws

Judge’s ruling against the state’s law on large-capacity gun clips is based on a problematic decision.

Schwab: Repent! God is angry at the sins of Trumpublicans

Why else would God have directed His earth-shaking wrath near Trump’s New Jersey golf course?

Marysville neighborhood commits to building neighbor culture

In a time when so many of us live our lives through… Continue reading

Look at what Biden, Democrats have done

All these crises belong to President Biden and the Democrats. Sixty days… Continue reading

Support local journalism

If you value local news, make a gift now to support the trusted journalism you get in The Daily Herald. Donations processed in this system are not tax deductible.