Cuban President Raul Castro listens during the opening of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Summit, in Havana, on December 8, 2014. (YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

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The U.S. embargo on Cuba — or what’s left of it after President Obama’s dramatic Cuba policy announcement — may be a futile gesture. But it is, or was, not an empty gesture.

It put the United States firmly on record that it would have as little as possible to do with a regime whose misdeeds have included inviting Soviet nuclear weapons onto its soil, sponsoring violent guerrilla groups throughout the Western Hemisphere, harboring fugitives from U.S. justice and — last but certainly not least — systematically trampling its citizens’ most basic rights.

In place of this clear position, Obama has taken a stance that is more nuanced morally but, he assures us, more efficacious practically.

He might be right, too — if you believe that this administration, or its successors, will have the diplomatic smarts, and the attention span, to maneuver the Castro regime into letting its people have more freedom.

Count me among the skeptics. As Obama’s former Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner used to enjoy saying, “Plan beats no plan” — and Havana has more of a plan than Washington.

To be sure, President Raúl Castro is in a world of trouble, what with his failing economy and the likelihood that declining oil prices will force Havana’s Venezuelan sponsors to reduce their subsidies.

The one thing he does have is a clear goal, keeping himself and Cuba’s Communist elite in power, and a time-tested approach for doing so: permitting the minimum economic and political liberalization consistent with total control, and nothing more.

Greater engagement with the United States does indeed pose risks to the regime, not the least of which is that incoming tourists and businessmen will start to erode a pervasive system of social and political control.

But Cuba’s authorities have years of experience manipulating foreign investors from Latin America, Canada and Europe, and with controlling Cubans’ interactions with foreign visitors, who tend to be more interested in exploiting the local population than liberating it.

And on the plus side for Havana, Obama’s measures, particularly greater remittances from U.S.-based Cubans, promise to bring much-needed hard currency to the perennially cash-strapped island.

By contrast, Obama not only abandoned long-standing U.S. policy, he also denounced it, giving the regime a huge propaganda victory. “Long weeks of cheers and victory cries await us,” dissident journalist Yoani Sánchez observed ruefully.

The president traded these valuables for the wrongly imprisoned American Alan Gross — but no verifiable, irreversible democratic reform on Cuba’s part. To the contrary, Obama came dangerously close to endorsing the argument by Raúl Castro and his brother, Fidel, that there’s a binary choice between the status quo and chaos.

“It does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse,” the president said. “Even if that worked — and it hasn’t for 50 years — we know from hard-earned experience that countries are more likely to enjoy lasting transformation if their people are not subjected to chaos.”

In describing the reforms he does support, the president was vague: In particular, he made no forthright demand for free elections, just freedom for Cubans to “participate in the political process,” a right the Castros already claim to guarantee.

Instead, the president spoke more loosely of “empowering Cubans to build an open and democratic country,” with the help of greater remittances from their stateside relatives, more contact with U.S. travelers and businesses and so on.

Raúl Castro can live with that. He knows that when the hoopla over this week’s big policy move is over, when Obama has finished collecting kudos from foreign policy mavens who have been clamoring for a more “rational” U.S. Cuba policy, Obama and most of the rest of official Washington will move on to other things.

Meanwhile, Castro and his fellow military officers will remain in firm control of the political and economic levers of power in Cuba, including the little things — jobs, visas, building permits, export and import licenses, court cases — that really determine whether and how Cubans and Americans get to interact and how much freedom seeps in to the deeply traumatized society.

Castro can look forward to dealing with second-tier U.S. diplomats, torn between their belief in democracy and the bureaucratic imperative to keep their bosses’ “engagement” project on track. When needed, a new Cuba lobby in Washington will help explain why it would be counterproductive to press Havana for immediate reform.

If this scenario sounds familiar, it’s because it has already worked for China and Vietnam, with which the United States once made war but now does business. As President Obama noted Wednesday, our policy toward Cuba is now more consistent with our policy toward those unfree states. For better or worse.

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