Play a Part in Cuba’s Future

Carlos Pascual and
Carlos Pascual Former U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Senior Vice President for Global Energy - IHS Markit, Former Brookings expert
Vicki Huddleston
Vicki Huddleston Former Brookings Expert

April 20, 2007

Fidel Castro might borrow Mark Twain’s line ”The report of my death was an exaggeration,” were he inclined to dispel the rumors and exaggerated pronouncements of his political demise and death. His health improving, Castro could be back in power by the time he celebrates his 81st birthday on Aug. 13.

With the campaign for president well under way, Republican candidates—and the Democrats will not be far behind—are already adopting the anti-Castro rhetoric and stiff support for the embargo that has helped elect U.S. presidents, members of Congress and Florida’s governors.

The Bush administration—by dictating policy and giving little in return—has so far stuck to our hundred-year-old vice of treating Cuba as if it were a wayward 51st state. Neither side of this equation—dictating or giving little—has produced positive results for U.S. foreign policy; it has merely transformed Cuba policy into a domestic political issue.

Whether it’s Fidel or Raúl Castro—or some combination of the two—time is running out on U.S. policy on Cuba. During the next five years, there will be an ongoing political transition in Cuba. Fidel may return to power, only to be followed once again by Raúl if Fidel’s health again deteriorates. And, Raúl at 75, is unlikely to rule long. As the inherently unstable situation continues, the United States can sit on the side lines, allowing the Revolution to regenerate and renew itself, or we can encourage reform by reducing Cuba’s isolation.

Oil reserves

If we continue to stubbornly insist that Cuba must first magically transform itself into a functioning democracy before we talk, we will be out of luck. The appeal of our aid, trade and investment will slip away. We will become irrelevant because Cuban, Venezuelan and other foreign companies are now developing huge offshore oil reserves. When the oil begins to flow, the income it generates will reinforce the ruling elite by creating jobs for Cuba’s restless youth and by improving lives. Cubans will no longer need the investment and jobs that Americans—especially Cuban Americans—could provide.

Perhaps it is time for American oil companies to lead the way in opening up Cuba? After all, the expropriation of these companies led President Eisenhower to impose the first comprehensive sanctions.

It will take courage and vision to change course, but the alternative is that neither the United States nor Cuban Americans will play a part in Cuba’s future. In Poland, Hungry, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union before the fall of the Iron Curtain, our contacts spread the idea that there was an alternative way of life and helped reinforce internal discontent with communism’s failure. The following actions, although modest, would allow the administration to seize the initiative after a half-century siesta:

Modify our isolationist policies—allow family and people-to-people visits—as their out-reach will reduce social tensions, allowing for some reforms during the ongoing and uncertain transitional years.

Renew bilateral cooperation on anti-narcotics, crime, migration and preservation of the environment. These objectives are as much in our interest as they are in Cuba’s.

Offer incentives for internal reform, such as permitting direct telecommunications links and the sale of communications equipment.

Encourage the Organization of American States to begin a dialogue with the Cuban government about the political and economic reforms that Cuba must undertake to again become an active member.

When Ronald Reagan challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to ”tear down that wall,” he did so from a position of moral superiority. He believed that the values of democracy and a market economy would prevail over authoritarianism and communism when people had a chance to be exposed to both. If, as a nation, we still believe in these core values, the implication should be clear—we should seek contact with the Cuban people to empower them to take charge of their future.

The price of partisan politics will be to persist in a failed policy that will continue to give life to Castro’s legacy, thereby preventing the contacts that would empower the Cuban people to take charge of their future.