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U.S. Engagement with a Post-Castro Cuba

Discussants: Philip Peters, and Dennis Hays
Updated: October 7, 2006

U.S.-Cuban relations have been virtually nonexistent since 1961, when the United States assumed a two-pronged policy of economic embargo and diplomatic isolation, neither of which substantially weakened Fidel Castro’s rule. Now that Fidel has transferred power to his younger brother, Raul, some experts think the United States should reconsider its policy toward Cuba. Many say not engaging the Cuban government is a mistake, and economic sanctions and travel restrictions only hurt the Cuban people, not the Cuban government. Others think diplomatic isolation and sanctions are necessary to break the Cuban government’s hold on power.

Philip Peters, vice president of the Lexington Institute and Cuba expert, and Dennis Hays, the State Department's coordinator for Cuban affairs from 1993 to 1995 and former executive vice president of the Cuban American National Foundation, debate how the United States should engage with a post-Castro Cuba.

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October 7, 2006

Dennis Hays

Good intentions do not always produce good policy. Mr. Peters places great faith in the power of American tourism, but there is little to support his faith. Over two million tourists visit Cuba each year and they have no beneficial affect on the political life of eleven million Cubans. Would large scale American tourism be different? Is an American tourist somehow better at spreading democracy than a Canadian or British tourist? How would that work exactly?  

I have never said that no one should go to Cuba. What I have said is that when traveling to a repressive regime we should first, do no harm, and second, try to be a force for positive change. Tourism to South Africa in the days of apartheid unquestionably put dollars into the pockets of some hotel workers. But most Americans didn’t go because the net result was to support a regime we didn’t believe in. How is this different for Cuba?  

Here is my challenge to Mr. Peters or anyone thinking about going to Cuba. Take along a dozen books in Spanish, something like Against all Hope by Armando Valladares or Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas if you are bold, but any books will do. Then, when you get to Cuba, give them to an independent library or even to random passersby on the street. Do this and you have my blessing. But if you really want a “revolutionary” experience, tell the Cuban customs officer on arrival what you plan to do. Please let me know how that goes.  

I do agree with Mr. Peters on one thing—we can do better. The strength of America is not just our openness, our ideas and our freedom; it also is our creativity, our determination and our sense of outrage. Let’s figure out how to break the chains of ignorance and fear the regime uses to so tightly bind its citizens. What’s wrong with passing out small short wave radios to anyone who will take them? How is broadcasting news and sports a bad thing? Why shouldn’t we encourage workers to form independent unions to protect their rights? We can do better; we just have to want to.       

Actually, I agree with Mr. Peters on a second point—change in Cuba will come from within. There has never been a shortage of Cubans who believe in freedom—there has been a shortage of international support for their struggles. Too often we have looked away or rationalized our failure to speak out when the regime crushes dissent. As Martin Luther King once said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Let’s stop being silent.


October 6, 2006

Philip Peters

That was precisely my point about President Reagan—he was confident that engagement with officials and peoples in the Soviet bloc would serve our interests.

I won’t debate the difference between debt and bankruptcy, or between discontent and organized opposition. The point is that Castro’s hold on power has never been threatened by Cuba’s palpable economic troubles or citizen discontent. Constant Cuban emigration is a sad reality; it is also one reason why a mass political opposition has not emerged.

A second is the administration’s inept efforts to grow that opposition. They begin with a regime change policy that includes material aid to Castro’s opponents but the aid is provided openly, as if Cuba’s government welcomes U.S. goals and pro-democracy projects, and as if there is no danger to those who participate. Several U.S.-funded organizations in Miami recently started a campaign for civil disobedience in Cuba. Their Miami publicity preceded any appearance of their posters and bumper stickers in Cuba. Are dissidents expected to pick up made-in-U.S.A. posters from U.S. diplomats in Havana? The State Department advertises publicly a plan to procure high-tech communications devices for dissidents. Sounds great, but our lack of discretion makes these efforts radioactive in Cuba and it surely delights Cuban propagandists who try to deny the opposition’s patriotism. Our government provided $400,000 to Georgetown University for scholarships, but only for the political opposition; the result is that only one Cuban has come to the United States. Similar examples abound.

We can do better. We could allow Americans to travel freely, including to aid dissidents if they wish. We could allow American universities to conduct exchanges without political constraints. We could join our European and Canadian allies whose programs in Cuba provide education, humanitarian aid, community development, environmental protection, and less drug traffic in the Caribbean. We should note that for all the criticism of tourism and foreign investment, these are the sectors where Cubans most want to work.

Neither engagement nor isolation will force change in Cuba; that will only come from within. Our Cuba policy only makes sense if you believe our approach to China and the former Soviet bloc are failures, or that Cubans are the first people to live under communism who wish to be isolated from America. The irony here is that behind the tough rhetoric, we hold back our greatest strengths: our openness, our ideas, our freedom.


October 5, 2006

Dennis Hays

Mr. Peters seems to have forgotten that everything President Reagan did was aimed at bringing down the Soviet Union, not preserving it. If there were any evidence anywhere that the tourism Mr. Peters advocates could actually undermine a dictatorship, I would support his position. Unfortunately, there isn’t. Freedom comes from the courage of men and women who stand up to tyranny, not by increasing the number of tourists drinking mojitos on the beach.  

Mr. Peters states Cuba is not “bankrupt.” I am curious to know what his definition of this word is, given that Cuba is in arrears to every nation that has ever been so foolish as to provide it funds. Spain, Mexico, Japan, South Africa, and two dozen other countries are owed over $15 billion. The nations of the former Eastern Bloc are owed over $22 billion. Cuba ranks with North Korea and Zimbabwe as the worst places on earth to do business and the Cubans don’t recognize the sanctity of contracts, private property, or the rule of law. Just being bankrupt would actually be a huge step up for the Cubans.   

Mr. Peters also makes the astonishing claim that the regime is not “politically weak.” This might be more convincing if a large percentage of the population didn’t routinely risk drowning at sea to escape. Or if the regime didn’t feel compelled to have a larger secret police presence spying on its citizens than the Soviet Union, East Germany, or the Nazis ever did. Or if yet another generation of young people was not growing old waiting for something better to happen. If the regime feels politically strong—call an election. 

The original question posed for this discussion dealt with U.S. engagement with a post-Castro Cuba, although I think a post-Fidel Cuba is what was meant. Raul and his cronies will try to implement the “China model” but they know they have to have an opening to the United States for this to have even the slimmest chance of success. The question then for us is what must Cuba do to warrant such an opening. If we ask for nothing on behalf of the Cuban people—what Mr. Peters suggests—that is exactly what we, and they, will get. Instead, why don’t we work with our allies to press any successor government to respect the dignity of the individual and grant the rights of free speech, a free press, free assembly, and free and fair elections? Why is this unreasonable? In the meantime, let’s do what we have done successfully elsewhere—help create independent unions, journalists associations, farmers’ co-ops, human rights groups, student organizations, and so on. Don’t we believe in such things? Don’t we believe the Cuban people deserve such things? 


October 4, 2006

Philip Peters

Was President Ronald Reagan standing with the oppressors or the oppressed when he engaged with Soviet leaders, visited dissidents, students, and cultural figures during his trips to Moscow, organized talks between U.S. government agencies and Soviet counterparts, and encouraged government to “get out of the way” so that private citizens and organizations could freely conduct exchanges?

With whom does President Bush stand when he talks with Chinese officials, tells us that these Communists “don’t like to be lectured in the public arena,” attends a government-licensed church in Beijing, and allows U.S. military officers to build relationships with their Chinese counterparts?

Were the Helsinki accords, which promoted free travel across Eastern Europe’s borders, a moral travesty? U.S. engagement with Communist countries has never conveyed moral approval and it has consistently been accompanied by strong assertion of our democratic ideals.

Mr. Hays is right about the consistency of U.S. policy toward Cuba, but we have also achieved consistent failure. He is right that nothing has changed in Cuba since Fidel Castro’s illness. I would add that today’s policy—a series of weak measures that don’t back up the false toughness of our regime-change rhetoric—does nothing to promote change. I also agree that it’s good to recall American solidarity with dissidents in the former Soviet bloc, but we should also recall the rest of our policies, especially the flow of people, information, and ideas that we promoted aggressively.

When it comes to Cuba, we have to begin with realistic assessments. Cuba is not “bankrupt” nor is its government politically weak. The only surefire regime-change policy that we could pursue would involve the U.S. military, an option no one advocates. We need to play for long-term influence, recognizing that change in Cuba will come from within, and that our embargo on American contacts is an embargo on American influence too.

Why limit the flow of information to that provided by inept programs funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development? Unfettered travel by Americans would deliver a massive flow of information and ideas, and increase the income of hundreds of thousands of independent Cubans. Cuba’s dissidents are not clamoring for isolation from the United States, nor do they ask other countries to ban travel to Cuba.

The people who will set the course of post-Castro Cuba are there now, and only through contact—including with officials—can we gain influence.


October 3, 2006

Dennis Hays

U.S. policy toward Cuba has been remarkably consistent for almost fifty years—every president from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush has stated that what we want is for the Cuban people to have the right to choose their own destiny—to be able to read, speak, and vote freely. And Fidel and Raul Castro have been equally consistent —they continue to use intimidation, exile, and lethal force to maintain their absolute hold on power.        

As Fidel’s health has deteriorated, the question has again arisen as to whether Cuba can begin a transition to a free market democracy or will remain a bankrupt tropical gulag. Two months ago much was made of Fidel delegating some of his authority to his brother. What has happened since then? Well, nothing. No change in the disastrous economic policies that have impoverished a once rich nation and no change in the regime’s crackdown on all forms of independent expression. This is not surprising. Nothing will change while Fidel lives and the generals around Raul, the ones who whisper in the ears of anyone who will listen that Cuba after Fidel will be like China—more open on the economy while maintaining “control” of the population—are frozen in place. The generals have a plan to preserve their prerogatives, but they can’t implement it as long as Fidel draws breath—and there is no telling how long that may be. This must be a never-ending nightmare for them. 

The outside world needs to reach out to Cubans on the island, but to which Cubans? I know Mr. Peters cares deeply about the Cuban people, but he seems to believe we should be dealing with the generals and apparatchiks currently in power—that is, the very individuals who willingly carry out the harsh and illogical policies that cause so much misery. U.S. policy, on the other hand, seeks to reach the dissidents, the political prisoners, the independent journalists and librarians and the average Cuban who just wants a chance at a better life. We were right to support [Lech] Walesa [Polish president from 1990 to 1995], [Vaclav] Havel [first president of the Czech republic], [Nelson] Mandela, and [Andrei] Sakharov [Soviet dissident] over their captors and tormentors. By reaching past the regime we can bring hope and support to the Cuban people. By insisting on a free flow of information in the form of books and magazines and radio and TV broadcasts and unfettered access to the Internet we can give Cubans the tools to take back their rights. The question is simple—who do we stand with in Cuba? The oppressors or the oppressed?   


October 2, 2006

Philip Peters

If Cuba’s government were teetering, if Cuba were in economic crisis, and if Cuba’s dissidents constituted a broad-based political movement, then a U.S. policy that shuns engagement with Cuba might make sense. 

But none of these conditions describe Cuba today. As the post-Castro era comes into view, the misperceptions that guide U.S. policy are also becoming clearer.

When Fidel Castro delegated duties to other officials, the Administration seemed to assume that systemic change would follow. President George W. Bush even promised to “take note of those, in the current Cuban regime” who would disrupt the Cuban people’s “effort to build a transitional government.” But there was no transition, and a de facto socialist succession may already have been accomplished.

To achieve its goal of “hastening the end of the dictatorship,” the Administration relies mainly on economic sanctions and aid to Cuban dissidents. Neither measure promises a decisive impact. 

Cuba’s economy has recovered through growth in tourism, energy, and minerals, and through aid, trade, and credits from Venezuela, China, Russia, and others. The result is 8 percent growth, according to the CIA. In this environment, our go-it-alone sanctions do not affect Cuban decision-making, but they do choke off all kinds of contact with American society, and they hurt Cuban families whose relatives face new limits, and in some cases a complete ban, on visits and cash assistance.

Cuba’s dissidents are brave democrats who have paid a high price for their views. But they are few, not well known in Cuba, and weakened by internal divisions and penetration by Cuban security services. Contrary to outsiders’ perceptions, they have never claimed an ability to mobilize the public. This was never clearer than in August, when some Cuban-American leaders in Miami were met with silence when they called for the dissidents to lead a civil disobedience campaign.

The Helms-Burton Act [1996 legislation that tightened the embargo] dictates the U.S. diplomatic posture: It bars the President from easing any sanctions until deep reforms are accomplished, and says that even if Cuba reforms, there will be no U.S. response if Raul Castro remains in government. 

Add it all up, and we have a policy that makes America inconsequential in the short run and irrelevant in the long run. Its regime-change rhetoric is, as a Texan would say, “all hat and no cattle.” There would be no cost and many benefits if the President were to engage as he does with other nondemocratic countries.

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