In Havana, an antique American car rides past a billboard saying “Long Live a free Cuba” on March 20. (Noah Friedman-Rudovsky for The Washington Post)

Don’t expect quid pro quo from Cuba.

The Castro regime has been decrying the U.S. trade and travel embargo for decades. Now that diplomatic relations have been restored, is the Cuban government looking to fast-track normal trade relations with the United States?

No. Since February 1962, the U.S. embargo has been a political asset for Cuba, and the Castro regime is loathe to see it disappear.

The Castro government has conceded little in exchange for the many U.S. overtures toward normalization in the past year. Political prisoners remain in Cuban jails. The Internet remains expensive, slow and hard to access. And as reported here in the Monkey Cage, there’s a “second embargo” — the wall created by Cuba’s own taxes and regulations, which deter potential foreign investors as well as Cuba’s private sector.

Cuba needs the United States as an enemy

For the past five decades, the Castro regime has said Cuba opposes the embargo and wants it removed. But having the United States as an enemy has long been one of the Castro regime’s main assets, a way to frame the regime’s message and policies.

Cuban laws prohibit commercial advertising, but billboards decrying the U.S. policy still line the highways. Leaving Havana’s airport, travelers see a large billboard with the image of a giant noose encircling the island — an “O” for the last letter of “BLOQUEO” (“blockade”), the regime’s preferred term to describe the U.S. trade and travel restrictions. The caption reads: “The longest genocide in history.”


Leaving the Havana airport, visitors see this poster reading, “Blockade: The longest genocide in history.” (Lisa Baldez)

Elsewhere, photos of Cuba’s “Five Heroes” are plastered on signboards and buildings. These are five Cuban agents who served time in U.S. prisons for espionage. The Castro regime claims they were protecting Cuba from potential terrorist plots. The Five were released between 2011 and 2014; that particular U.S.-Cuba standoff is over. Yet the regime keeps the images prominent to sustain a sense that Cubans must unite against a threatening United States.

The incongruity between propaganda and policy will grow as the U.S. embargo and travel restrictions are dismantled and as the information blockade imposed by the Cuban government on its own citizens erodes. Although only an estimated 5 percent of the Cuban population has Internet access, that’s likely to change. In 2015, Google offered to provide the island with free high-speed Internet access, relying on WiFi hotspots. While the government has dragged its feet, a Cuban artist recently opened a hotspot in his private studio space.

Recent research indicates that, although media manipulation and incited nationalism can boost support for governments on the margin, these effects are dominated by economic conditions. The Cuban regime has been determined to maintain the United States as an adversary. But the public’s long-term support for the regime depends more on whether the U.S. opening improves economic conditions for Cuban citizens.

In the meantime, expecting the Cuban government to offer policy concessions in exchange for U.S. moves toward openness misses the point. The billboards and posters from the Ministry of Information and Communications decry the embargo, and suggest the government ought to be willing to work to achieve normalization.

The opposite is true. The Cuban regime does not look forward to losing its great adversary — the Goliath to its David, and the greatest excuse for its economic failures. Raul Castro in 2015 blamed the embargo for $121 billion in economic losses for Cuba. Dismantling the embargo undercuts that narrative.

John Carey is Wentworth Professor in the Social Sciences at Dartmouth College, where he teaches in the government department.