So by now I’m sure you’re aware that the Obama administration and Cuba’s communist regime have pledged to restore diplomatic ties through a variety of means, which include
jointly pissing off the 2016 GOP presidential candidates an exchange of prisoners, a relaxation of some import controls and travel restrictions, and an upgrade of interest sections to embassies. The lifting of the full embargo will require an act of Congress, but it looks like that conversation will start to take place.
Since this includes a tentative lifting of some economic sanctions, and since I know a little something about sanctions, I thought I’d provide a friendly question-and-answer session about What All This Means.
Will a warming of Cuban-American ties mean that the oppressive Cuban regime will move towards democratization and improved human rights? Nah, probably not all that much. Let’s be clear about this. Generally speaking, neither negative economic statecraft (sanctions) nor positive economic statecraft (inducements) works terribly well at changing the nature of a hostile regime. And Cuba is still a hostile regime. Raul Castro embraced the opening Wednesday while still “acknowledging our profound differences, particularly on issues related to national sovereignty, democracy, human rights and foreign policy.” So there are still pretty elevated expectations of future conflict between Washington and Havana.
The increase in remittances can give ordinary Cuban citizens an alternative supply of economic resources, and that might weaken Cuban state control. That said, the statistical evidence suggests that a surge in remittances will extend the Cuban government’s ability to survive, not hasten its demise.
The Cuban government, if it’s smart, will try to direct any benefits from economic opening to its most vital supporters. Cuba experts seem to agree that this is likely to happen. So no, this won’t trigger significantly better odds in the way of regime change.
Whoa, it sounds like the United States isn’t getting much from this?! Why should the U.S. agree to any kind of opening? Because while the benefits of catalytic carrots are not all that great, the status quo policy was worse. Way worse.
It’s not like 50 years of economic sanctions altered Cuba’s regime. Sure, Cuba’s chief economic patron Venezuela is ailing right now, but Cuba endured far worse when the USSR disintegrated and the Special Period started. So anyone who tells you that the sanctions just needed more a little time to work is flat-out delusional. After more than a half-century, they were never going to work.
By switching course, the United States reaps a few benefits. First, the odds of orderly liberalization and democratization in Cuba have increased. Not by a lot — maybe from 2 percent to 10 percent. But that’s still an improvement. Even if full-blown regime transition doesn’t happen, economic liberalization does make a society somewhat more free. Today’s Post editorial points to Vietnam as the worst-case outcome for the Cuba policy. But Vietnam now has a considerably more liberal climate than before the US opening, so I don’t think that’s the best example.
Second, as my Washington Post colleagues Erik Voeten and Ishaan Tharoor have already observed, U.S. policy on Cuba has been, literally, isolationist — as in, it isolates the United States. Unlike other cases (see below), there is zero multilateral support for sanctioning Cuba — quite the opposite, in fact. Improving ties with Havana ameliorates a long-standing source of friction between the United States and Latin America. That’s called “good diplomacy.”
Third, when you consider the mammoth size of the United States and Cuba’s proximity, the only parallel economic relationship that comes to mind is China-Taiwan — if Taiwan were a lot poorer. If trade, tourism and investment takes off between the two countries, Cuba will quickly become the more asymmetrically dependent actor, no matter how hard the Cuban government tries to resist. This won’t make it much easier for the United States to affect regime change — but it will nudge Cuba towards a less confrontational foreign policy.
Finally, warming ties with Cuba can signal to allies and adversaries that the U.S. can cut deals with enduring rivals. The more that say, Iran, becomes convinced that the United States is not hell-bent on regime change, the more comfortable the government will be to strike a nuclear deal. Similarly, if such a deal does not come to pass, allies and observers will find it harder to claim that the United States was never prepared to cut such a deal — because they can point to Cuba.
Isn’t this hypocritical? Doesn’t this weaken U.S. policy on human rights? This akin to the point that my colleague Chuck Lane makes. He argued that despite its utter futility, there were virtues to the Cuba embargo policy:
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… sponsoring violent guerrilla groups… harboring fugitives from U.S. justice and — last but certainly not least — systematically trampling its citizens’ most basic rights.
How to put this gently… the moment the United States slaps a full embargo on Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Chuck will have a point. Until then, however, I think it’s safe it say that there are multiple means beyond a full embargo through which the U.S. can nudge a country towards better treatment of its citizens.It’s not like this policy change will alter the State Department’s human rights assessment of Cuba all that much.
So if we’re opening up to Cuba, why aren’t we opening up to North Korea too?
I can’t believe I really have to write these paragraphs, but here goes: North Korea poses a serious security risk far beyond its human rights debacle. Its nuclear program makes the country a clear threat to key U.S. treaty allies. One goal of the sanctions against North Korea is to force Pyongyang to the negotiating table, but another goal is simple containment, to weaken its capabilities. In implementing this sanctions policy, the United States has the strong support of every other country in the region. One can pretty much say the same thing about Iran, except that country’s government seems interested in negotiating a way out of its current conundrum.
The Cuban government remains a problem for the Cuban people. It no longer poses a serious security threat to the rest of Latin America, nor does it serve as a forward operating base for any great power rival. The U.S. has exactly zero regional support for the continuance of the embargo. Oh, and Cuba does not have a nuclear weapons program.
The new regulations will allow Americans to bring back $100 in Cuban cigars and rum. Are Cuban cigars really all that and a bag of chips?
If the embargo gets lifted, won’t a lot of tacky American commerce totally spoil Cuba? Won’t that make the country, like, kind of tacky? Yes, you’re totally right. Can you imagine those poor Cubans, suddenly being besieged with a welter of consumer choice? Man, that sounds like an aesthetic nightmare. So if you think this way, I strongly encourage you to move immediately to Pyongyang, where you’ll never have to worry about this kind of awful stuff ever again.