President Obama is basking in global adulation for his decision to normalize relations with Cuba. But one group is not impressed with Obama’s rapprochement with the totalitarian regime in Havana: the dissidents on the island who are risking their lives for democracy and human rights.
Yoani Sánchez, Cuba’s most influential dissident blogger, declared that with Obama’s move “Castroism has won.” Guillermo Fariñas, a dissident journalist and winner of the European Union’s 2010 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, told the Guardian newspaper that Obama’s move is “a disaster.” Fariñas, who has conducted 23 hunger strikes to protest Cuban repression, added, “We live in daily fear that we will be killed by the fascist government. And now, the U.S. — our ally — turns its back on us and prefers to sit with our killers.”
Ángel Moya, who was recently released from an eight-year prison sentence, told the New York Times that Obama “betrayed those of us who are struggling against the Cuban government. There will be more repression, only this time with the blessing of the United States.” Moya further declared that dissidents “are totally against the easing of the embargo” because “the government will have more access to technology and money that can be used against us.”
Moya is right. U.S. tourism and investment in Cuba won’t help ordinary Cubans at all; it will help the regime repress them. Here is why: The Castro brothers are the nation’s sole employer. Virtually everyone in Cuba works for the state. The regime’s monopoly on employment is a source of political control. Cubans are dependent on the Castros for everything — work, housing, education, food — and can see those things taken away for the slightest expression of counterrevolutionary sentiment.
This means that if U.S. businesses invest in Cuba, they would have to partner with the Castro brothers. They would not be allowed to hire Cuban workers directly or pay them in U.S. dollars. They would have to pay the Castro regime as much as $10,000 per worker. The regime then would give the worker a few hundred worthless Cuban pesos and pocket the rest. So rather than helping ordinary Cubans become independent of the state, U.S. businesses will directly subsidize the Castro police state, while using what effectively amounts to Cuban slave labor.
That is reason enough to bar U.S. investment in Cuba. But the other reason Cuban dissidents oppose Obama’s move is that he has given up U.S. leverage to influence a post-Castro democratic transition. As Rebecca Roja, a dissident who said the secret police knocked out two of her teeth during beatings, told the Guardian: “The Castros got what they wanted from the U.S. Now they have no incentive to change.”
After five decades, it is clear the Castros were never going to follow in the footsteps of the regime in Burma (also known as Myanmar), which negotiated a loosening of repression in exchange for a lifting of sanctions and normalization of relations. But those who succeed the Castros were likely to do so once the brothers were gone. Virtually everyone on the island — both inside and outside the regime — was waiting for the Castros to finally die so that the process of normalizing economic and political ties could finally begin.
Now the regime doesn’t have to wait or give anything in return — because Obama has unilaterally given the Cuban regime the political recognition it was desperately seeking. Obama has given the Castros legitimacy and hopes to soon unleash a flood of tourists and business investment that will only help the regime maintain its totalitarian system. The president apparently did not even seek any liberalization from Havana in exchange — no agreement to allow a free press, independent political parties, free market reforms or free elections, much less to end repression against dissent.
Fortunately, Obama was constrained from lifting the embargo entirely because Congress codified it in 1996 as part of the Helms-Burton Act. The complete lifting of economic sanctions on the Castros is conditioned by law on a post-Castro regime taking meaningful steps to dismantle the police state and move toward democracy and a free market economy.
The remaining legal restrictions on trade with Cuba are the last piece of leverage the United States has to press for democratic change on the island when the Castros are gone. Congress should listen to the dissidents on the island and refuse to go along with any further loosening of economic sanctions unless real democratic change occurs in Cuba.
The United States should not give away its last bit of leverage just as time prepares to do what the embargo could not — bring about the end of the Castro regime.