President Obama’s decision in December to restore diplomatic and eventually trade relations with Cuba has generated some unlikely alliances.
A few pragmatic-minded Republicans, such as Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ), agree that the 50-year-old trade embargo has accomplished very little. Certainly, it hasn’t led to a meaningful change for the better, let alone the ouster of the Castro regime.
At the same time, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) has joined the majority of the Republican caucus in opposition to the president’s policy change, calling it a capitulation. Even the Washington Post editorial board, hardly a regular critic of this administration, expressed its misgivings yesterday. The island nation only 90 miles from our shores is no doubt a repressive state. The Cuban government denies its people virtually every liberty we hold dear, arresting political dissidents and housing them in ghastly prisons, crushing independent media, and restricting movement and assembly of journalists and activists (among other egregious offenses).
But are human rights violations cause for economic retribution? If so, it seems that not all violators are created equal. What about the abuses in China? In Vietnam? In Saudi Arabia? In Turkey? According to Freedom House‘s accounting of political and civil liberties, some of our closer commercial and strategic partners rank near the bottom of the list.
Let’s face it. If repressive governance disqualified a country from doing business with the U.S., we would be doing a lot less business in foreign markets. Certainly there has to be something more than concern for human rights behind our persistent impasse with Cuba.
What about the country’s bad behavior beyond its borders? For decades the Castro brothers have been notorious troublemakers from South America to Africa. Then again, they don’t stand alone on this count either. Despite a decade of destabilizing foreign intrigue by Hugo Chavez and his successor in Caracas, we continue to maintain full diplomatic relations with Venezuela, and U.S. trade with the nation totaled $64 billion in 2012.
In practice, every conflict is different. Effective policy requires a lens of realism. Sanctions against Apartheid South Africa were justified in retrospect because the leadership of the country wanted to reverse its international isolation. And for better or for worse, our current sanctions regime against Iran does seem to have brought the ayatollahs to the nuclear arms bargaining table. In contrast, Kim Jong-un cares little about North Korea’s seclusion and the economic deprivations of his people. We should not be surprised when our threats and bribes do little to bring Pyongyang into compliance with the most rudimentary norms of international behavior.
So while it may not comport very well with lofty political rhetoric, it appears that U.S. economic pressure is really just a tactical instrument, to be deployed when it helps, and discarded when it doesn’t.
What’s needed today is a bit more candor and clarity about our positions and policies. We should not mince words when it comes to critiquing behavior which undermines liberty or America’s vital strategic interests. It does not follow, however, that we need a uniform strategy to contain it.
The question we should be asking about Cuba is not whether the regime is bad — it is. And it’s not whether 50 years of embargo has worked — it hasn’t. Instead we should be looking forward with an honest analysis of our options. Will continued isolation of Cuba perpetuate the problems or will it finally precipitate a tipping point for change?
There are well-reasoned arguments on both sides, but neither seems to acknowledge the other. It would be refreshing to hear President Obama disparage the Castro mystique that persists among his base of support. It would also be more convincing to hear Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) critique the shortcomings of the Cuba embargo, even as he advocates keeping it in place. On balance, we should take steps to normalize, but at a measured pace and with a close eye for proof that it’s making things better.