How Not to Promote Democracy in Cuba

October 25, 2007

President Bush yesterday made a case for bringing democracy to Cuba. Yet by telling the Cuban people not to expect help from the U.S. until they have made Cuba free, and by refusing to make any substantive change to U.S. policy, he is actually forestalling democratization.

In his speech at the State Department, Bush offered several carrots to the Cuban people: computers and Internet access; scholarships through the Partnership for Latin American Youth; and, most significant, access to grants, loans and debt relief provided by a multibillion-dollar “Freedom Fund for Cuba.” But he conditioned all these on evidence of reform. He wants to see “opposition parties have the freedom to organize, assemble and speak with equal access to the airwaves,” “a free and independent press [that] has the power to operate without censors,” and removal of the government “stranglehold on private economic activity.”

Those are admirable goals. But evidence from democratic transitions around the world shows that dictators fall only when the people they oppress are empowered with the help of governments, non-governmental organizations and individuals from outside their country. For instance, of the former Soviet countries, the ones that became democratic and joined the European Union had the most contact with their neighbors in Western Europe. It’s unrealistic to expect Cubans to magically transform their authoritarian government into a democracy on their own. We won’t see a viable political opposition or vibrant free press until we help build up Cuban civil society.

We also won’t see meaningful movement toward democracy without changes to the U.S.’s rigid travel restrictions. These prevent the person-to-person contact and exchange of ideas that could build support for democracy and competition within Cuba.

At the same time, the U.S. provides a safety valve that allows the most disillusioned Cubans and their families to escape rather than press for change at home. Bush was joined by many Cuban-born, could-have-been-reformers at the State Department yesterday, including Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and former Sen. Mel Martinez, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart of Florida.

To give Bush credit, he did call for other countries to encourage their NGOs to work with Cuban civil society. But it’s hard to call for action without leading by example. And “the United States will keep the embargo in place,” Bush said yesterday, “as long as the regime maintains its monopoly over the political and economic life of the Cuban people.”

Fidel Castro has outmaneuvered two Bush administrations and a total of nine American presidents. By continuing hard-line policies, President Bush is making it more likely that the Castro family will be in power on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution on Jan. 1, 2009.

The president said our goal in Cuba is democracy. But it should be both democracy and stability. No one — most of all the Cuban people — wants bloodshed or a humanitarian disaster. To encourage democratization and a peaceful transition, the U.S. must start a dialogue with both the people of Cuba and their government.

In his speech, Bush said the Cuban government “isolates its people from the hope that freedom brings, and traps them in a system that has failed them.” By maintaining the status quo, the U.S. government is just reinforcing that isolation.