Cuba at Fifty

December 31, 2008

Everything that needs to be said has been said on Cuba. The glorious Revolution is tired; its young and charismatic leaders now ill, dead, and decrepit, and its archenemy ravaged by recession and battered by the unkind sting of an unpopular war. Nothing is to be gained from isolation or even more isolation. Nor will more liberal policies now restore Cuba the wayward if repentant bride to the Cuban-American community, its ever faithful suitor.

Too much time—a half-century—and too much change on both sides of the Florida Straits has passed. Why add another word, another admonition to change U.S. policy, or another plea for a democratic Cuba? Is there anything new that will convince Miami and Havana that it is time to end this feud?

Yet, as the old adage goes: “hope springs eternal.” For the tenth time since Fidel Castro rode into Havana, a new American administration is rolling into Washington, and Miami and Havana are again full of hope and fear in equal measures. Indeed they have reason. Cuba rhetoric did not dominate the presidential debate in Florida and Raul—not Fidel—Castro holds power. President–elect Obama’s campaign promise to lift restrictions on Cuban-American travel and remittances would be a welcome New Year’s gift to separated families. And, Raul Castro has offered up several olive branches. Although no longer wrapped in the usual rhetoric, they are heavy with demands for the return of Guantanamo Bay and Cuba’s “Five Heroes.”

But if past is prologue, a change of American administrations is not enough to change the dynamic between the United States and Cuba.

President Kennedy adopted and modified a scheme for invading Cuba from the Eisenhower administration. The Bay of Pigs gave the Soviet Union an excuse to protect its newest client in the Americas, resulting a confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union that brought us to the brink of nuclear war.

Bill Clinton thought he could balance domestic politics while unraveling the embargo, but Fidel Castro sunk his good intentions with two made-in-Cuba crises: the shoot down of the Brothers’ to the Rescue aircraft and turning little Elian Gonzalez—the Cuban child returned by U.S. courts to his father—into a Cuban hero and a Cuban-American disaster.

When George W. Bush took office he initially continued the liberal travel polices of the Clinton administration and even flirted with the idea that greater contact, outreach, and bilateral talks might promote change in Cuba. But Jeb Bush’s re-election campaign intervened. The Cuban Liberty Council demanded that the Bush administration increase Cuba’s isolation and return to the politics of regime change—revolution not evolution. The resulting hard-line politics of the Bush administration cutoff its access, thereby aiding a smooth succession to what has become a split presidency in which both Castro brothers rule.

Although Cuba’s economy has slowed, its friends—Brazil, Mexico, China, Spain, and Russia—are extending credit. U.S. sanctions now serve more to punish the Cuban people and harm our image than hurt the Cuban government. Our influence is at its nadir having been drained away by Venezuelan oil subsidies to Chavez’s regional acolytes, the potential of Cuban deep-sea oil, and our adventures in the Middle East.

How many times has it been said that if we hope to help give Cubans a voice in their future we will have to jettison our policy of regime change and engage the Cuban government? But this is a family feud in which the protagonists are shouting, not listening nor understanding that there is no victory, no winners, and only losers between the protagonists who share a common heritage.

If I dare offer one more word or thought it is simply that a changed world offers opportunities to those Cuban Americans and Cubans bold enough to bury the past and build a future friendship among all Cubans and Americans.