As the Post’s Karen DeYoung reported Thursday, last month’s announcement of a thaw in Cuban-American relations is starting to see some implementation:

The Obama administration announced new rules easing travel and trade restrictions against Cuba on Thursday, moving quickly to implement steps the president ordered less than a month ago when he said the United States would reestablish diplomatic relations with the island’s communist government….
A relative handful [of lawmakers], led by Cuban American senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), have called the measures an undeserved gift to Raúl Castro, who took over as president from his ailing brother Fidel nearly a decade ago, and said the moves stretch the embargo laws past the breaking point….
The administration was eager to put the new rules in place before next week’s scheduled visit to Havana by Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson for talks on reestablishing diplomatic relations. The step-by-step normalization process was agreed upon after 18 months of secret U.S.-Cuba talks. It included last month’s exchange of imprisoned spies and the release of U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross, who had been jailed for five years for distributing U.S.-funded computer equipment in Cuba.
The administration also confirmed last week that Cuba had complied with its request to release 53 political prisoners.

When the announcement was made last month, I expressed skepticism that lifting the sanctions would actually democratize Cuba — and even more skepticism that maintaining the embargo would push Raúl Castro into making any significant steps towards liberalization.

A month later, there’s some hot new political science research that leaves me a smidgen less skeptical of the possibility of democratization — but only a smidgen.

Let me explain. One of the key changes made Thursday concerns remittances from the United States to Cubans. Looking at the U.S. Treasury Department’s fact sheet on the new rules, the changes include:

  1. The limits on generally licensed remittances to Cuban nationals other than certain prohibited Cuban Government and Cuban Communist Party officials will be increased from $500 to $2,000 per quarter.”
  2. Certain remittances to Cuban nationals for humanitarian projects, support for the Cuban people, or development of private businesses will be generally authorized without limitation. “
  3. Authorized travelers will be allowed to carry with them to Cuba $10,000 in total family remittances, periodic remittances, remittances to religious organizations in Cuba, and remittances to students in Cuba pursuant to an educational license.”

Now as I said last month, “the statistical evidence suggests that a surge in remittances will extend the Cuban government’s ability to survive, not hasten its demise.” But that statistical evidence was based on only one paper that lumped together all authoritarian regimes and viewed remittances as simply another form of unearned income, such as foreign aid or oil revenues.

In a new paper published just 10 days ago in International Studies Quarterly, Abel Escribà-Folch, Covadonga Meseguer, and Joseph Wright argue the following in “Remittances and Democratization.”

Do remittances stabilize autocracies? Remittances—money sent by foreign workers to individuals in their home country—differ from other sources of external non-tax revenue, such as foreign aid, because they accrue directly to individuals and thus raise the incomes of households. We argue that remittances increase the likelihood of democratic transition by undermining electoral support for autocratic incumbents in party-based regimes. Remittances therefore make voters less dependent on state transfers. As a result, autocracies that rely heavily on the broad-based distribution of spoils for their survival, namely party-based regimes, should prove especially vulnerable to increases in remittances. Evidence consistent with this argument suggests that remittances promote democratization in some dictatorships.

Now, before anyone starts running around preparing for a democratic Cuba, there are a few caveats to note:

  1. Cuba was not included in the sample — though as this paper explains, Cuba is normally coded as a party-based regime;
  2. The magnitude of the remittance effect needs to be noted. From the paper: “In party-regimes, increasing remittances by two standard deviations around the mean… changes the predicted risk of transition from 1.2 percent to 1.5 percent.” So the effect is a modest one.
  3. The key mechanism through which remittances have a democratizing effect on party-based authoritarian regimes is through elections. So, the paper concludes:
Migration policies that enhance the flow of remittances to autocratic countries may prove an important tool of foreign policy for wealthy democracies interested in promoting democracy abroad. However, because remittances are most likely to further democratization by eroding electoral support for incumbent autocratic parties, they may contribute little to the political change in regimes—such as China’s—that do not hold multiparty elections at the national level. [emphasis added]

And no, in case you were wondering, Cuba does not hold multiparty elections at the national level.

So does this leave us back where we were last month? Not exactly, for three reasons. First, if nothing else, this paper suggests that remittances do not sustain authoritarian regimes like Cuba in the same way as other capital flows, such as foreign aid or raw materials exports. So the weak Rubio/Menendez argument now seems even weaker.

Second, as the paper notes, one of the channels through which this kind of opening can matter is through “social remittances” — namely, the ability of those receiving funds from outside the country to mobilize and vote against the dominant party (see this paper for more). So think of the increase in remittance flows as planting a lot of seeds should Cuba move towards liberalization.

Third, and most important, this paper offers a concrete policy recommendation for the U.S. government. Multiparty elections are the key mechanism through which remittances can affect democratization. It doesn’t matter if these elections are neither free nor fair, just that they happen, and the dominant party can be surprised by weak electoral support.  So, a key U.S. foreign policy goal should be for Cuba to allow for multiparty elections, even if they seem like sham elections at the outset.

This might seem like pretty weak beer. The communists will dominate any multiparty election through legal and extralegal means. But even this move increases the odds through which remittances can eventually alter Cuba’s political trajectory. So even if it seems like a cosmetic policy change, it could have real world consequences in the future.