Last weekend, in “America’s Conflicted Cuba Policy,” The New York Times’ Sunday Review focused on the re-established diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States and their halting “progress toward rebuilding what has been the most poisonous relationship in the hemisphere.”
Washington and Havana have agreed to cooperate on health care challenges, maritime issues, agriculture, climate change and environmental initiatives. Commercial flights between the two countries are expected to start this fall. American telecommunications and hotel companies have signed a handful of deals to do business in Cuba, marking the first commercial forays into a market that has been off limits for decades.
The longstanding trade embargo, however, remains firmly in place, and efforts in Congress to begin dismantling it have made little headway. While the White House promotes engagement as the most promising approach to enable positive change, a stubborn coalition of lawmakers insists that the United States remains morally obligated to keep sanctions in place until —in the words of the Republican Party platform — the island’s “corrupt rulers are forced from power and brought to account for their crimes against humanity.” The result is a conflicted, indeed incoherent, policy that prevents the two countries from making the most of their shared agenda.
Some positive things have happened on the Cuban side since December 2014, when Washington and Havana announced their intention to normalize relations. Cubans have grown bolder in pressing for reforms to Cuba’s centrally planned economy, as well as for broader access to the internet. The government has taken modest steps on both fronts, establishing dozens of Wi-Fi areas where ordinary Cubans can connect online and signaling its willingness to create a regulatory framework for small and midsize private enterprises.
Dissident groups, meanwhile, report that their ranks have grown steadily, as more Cubans are sold on their vision of representative democracy with strong safeguards for civil liberties. Opposition groups are preparing to field candidates next year for the lowest rung of Cuba’s election system — the only one the Communist Party does not fully control — hoping to transform the system gradually from the bottom up. Economic changes are moving very slowly, but this could change if the embargo were lifted. Popular pressure for more sweeping reforms would grow, and the government would find it harder to justify its crackdowns on dissidents by claiming they are agents of a foreign conspiracy.
Cuba’s worsening economy, brought about in part by political and economic turmoil in Venezuela, long Cuba’s benefactor, could also be a catalyst for reform. Earlier this month, President Raúl Castro warned in strikingly blunt terms that Cubans should brace for a period of austerity.
Some congressional proponents of continuing the embargo might see Cuba’s difficulties as an opportunity to squeeze the octogenarian Castro brothers during their last years in power. That would be a mistake. Cuba’s shoddy infrastructure would continue to deteriorate, foreign investors would recoil, already marginal communities would become even poorer and the exodus of desperate Cubans to the United States would accelerate. It seems highly unlikely that this scenario would usher in an era of greater freedoms. But it certainly would sow misery.