If I were a betting woman, I would bet that if The Miami Herald were to ask Cuban Americans what U.S. foreign policy has been the least successful over the last half century, the overwhelming answer would be none other than: Cuba.
No matter how much we may wish it to be otherwise, there is no denying the fact that Fidel Castro and the Cuba Revolution have survived and to some degree thrived, despite all our efforts to the contrary. If we had any doubt, it should have been removed when Fidel handed over power to his hand-picked loyal successor — his brother Raúl.
Ironically, Fidel has done that which we least expected — turn over power to a successor while he is still alive. But by doing so, he has ensured a peaceful transfer of power and his continuing influence within the regime’s hierarchy. His legacy is secure — and he is still around to watch over it.
Raúl’s job at 76 is to prepare for a transition to one of the loyal elite, such as Vice President Carlos Lage, Foreign Minister Felipe Roque, National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón or even a lesser known such as the glamorous former head of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington D.C., Fernando Ramírez Estenoz.
If all goes well, Raúl will establish his legitimacy by carrying out modest reforms that put more food on the table, provide better housing and allow a bit more personal freedom. Having waited so long for improved living conditions, Raúl may not have to do very much to boost his dour image and popularity. But if the revolution at any time appears to be in jeopardy, the older, harder, fighting men — including First Vice President José Ramón Machado Ventura, Gen. Julio Casas Regueiro, who replaced Raúl as minister of defense, and Minister of Interior Abelardo Colomé Ibarra — will bring the full force of the institutions they command to ensure their own survival and that of the Cuban state.
There can no longer be any doubt that our isolation of Cuba did not and cannot bring about the end of the revolution. What will bring about the revolution’s demise are old age, illness and death. More important, the revolution will evolve as it loses its founding fathers and becomes increasingly less isolated from its neighbors though the Internet, television, travelers and the flow of information.
But how fast and how far the revolution evolves depends upon U.S. policy. If we remove the barriers to communication, we will speed the forces of change. Just as was the case in Eastern Europe as a result of the Helsinki agreements, the Cuban people will be empowered by human contact, the free flow of information, and the support and encouragement of Americans and Cuban Americans from Florida to California.
If U.S. policy can deal with Cuba — not as a domestic political issue — but as one sovereign state to another, then we will resume official diplomatic relations with the exchange of ambassadors and begin — once again — to talk about matters that affect the well being and security of both our countries, namely migration, anti-narcotics, health and the environment. Starting a dialogue will allow us to press Cuba’s leaders to respect the principles that we and the region hold dear: human rights, rule of law and freedom.
Removing the barriers to communications and to normal diplomatic relations are not concessions as some would claim. Rather, they are practical initiatives that will reduce the dependence of the Cuban people on the Cuban state by providing them with alternative sources of information and resources to improve their daily lives.
More critically, a policy based on helping the Cuban people succeed would enable them to build civil society and begin a process of growing democracy from the bottom up.
But the Bush administration is standing by its policy that Cuba must change first, tying any modification in our unilateral embargo to the end of the Castro regime. This does us and the Cuban people a disservice because it ties our policy to that of Raúl Castro’s. By waiting for the Cuban regime to act, we make policy initiatives that would bring about change, dependent on the actions of the Cuban government.
The longer we wait the more likely that Cuba’s new leaders will manage without us. In three to five years, Cuba, with help from foreign investors, will have exploited deep-sea oil and its sugar cane ethanol, adding billions to its annual revenues and making the island a net exporter of energy.
Worse, the longer we wait, the slower the process of change. If we want to play a role in Cuba’s future, we must act now to encourage change in Cuba, by the Cuban people.
Brookings Senior Fellow and former U.S. State Department Special Envoy on Climate Todd Stern spoke at the US Climate Action Center, at the COP 24 UN climate negotiations, on the future of the Paris Agreement in Katowice, Poland on December 10, 2018.