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 One outdated, counterproductive relic of the Cold War remains — the economic embargo forbidding most business ties with the island nation — and the Republican-controlled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.

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