Last week President Obama unveiled what he called a “new approach” to U.S.-Cuban relations.
“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries," Obama said. "These 50 years have shown, isolation has not worked. It's time for a new approach."
This doesn't really mean much yet, as only Congress has the power to lift the embargo on trade with U.S.
This fact was not lost on Raúl Castro, the hermanito of Fidel and current dictator of the communist regime in Havana.
"This decision by President Obama deserves the respect and recognition of our people,” Castro said in measured tones. Castro then qualified his already qualified praise with the disclaimer that such "does not mean that the most important issue has been resolved. The embargo on our country ... has to end."
(Translation of the translation: We comrades appreciate the hugs Mr. Obama, but what we could really use an infusion of Yankee dollars into our woefully mismanaged, sclerotic Marxist basket case of a country.”)
This has of course been controversial, as Obama surely knew it would be. The U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba dates back to October 1960. (For those of you who are a little weak on the presidents, Eisenhower was still president then.) Throughout the long decades of the Cold War, the embargo was a key pillar of United States’ policy of opposing the spread of communism—globally in general, but specifically in the Western Hemisphere.
I’m a Republican, more or less of the conservative variety, and I tend to reflexively object to almost anything this president does. I’m one of those “wouldn’t vote for Obama for dog catcher” types. But in the same spirit of Hitler-did-build-the-Autobahn-after-all, I have to cautiously take President Obama’s side in this matter.
I don’t take his side wholeheartedly. One can make a strong case based on principle alone that the U.S. should have only minimalist relations with dictatorships. This would include not only Cuba, of course—but also China, Vietnam, and Saudi Arabia.
For better or for worse, this is not American policy, and has not been for some time. A strategic embrace of communist dictatorships has long had a place in U.S. foreign policy. In 1979, Washington sold the only serious Chinese opposition down the river with the Taiwan Relations Act, and officially declared the communists in Beijing to be the American-recognized rulers of the Middle Kingdom.
The dream of selling a billion widgets to a billion Chinese has dominated our foreign policy where China is concerned ever since. We didn't stop with simple diplomatic recognition (which was originally done to turn China resolutely against the Soviets). China has long enjoyed favorable trade terms with the United States, and in 2012, Sino-American trade totaled some $579 billion.
Nor have we stopped with trade. In recent years, the U.S. has carried out joint naval exercises with China. In the name of “improving Sino-American relations,” in other words, we essentially treat our primary geopolitical competitor like Sweden, Japan, or the UK. Or at least sometimes we do.
That’s a lot of engagement with a country that is still a one-party dictatorship. The Chinese government still idolizes Mao Zedong, the murderer of millions of Chinese. The current government has, certainly, revised some of Mao’s economic policies. But the Chinese Communist Party’s grip on political power remains as firm as ever.
There are no legal opposition parties in China. Religious and philosophical dissidents, like members of the Falun Gong, have been detained, jailed, and even killed.
In June 1989, the Chinese government ended a peaceful student protest in Tiananmen Square by sending in tanks and soldiers. No one knows for sure how many Chinese citizens were massacred in Beijing that June, but the number surely reached into the thousands.
In the aftermath of the massacre, then U.S. president George H.W. Bush, while expressing disapproval of the killings, warned that America should not “pull back and declare that China is simply too impure a place for us”. Bush was making the case for the renewal of China’s most-favored nation (MFN) status.
As most readers will know, American business certainly did not pull back. The Detroit automakers now regard China as a central element of their sourcing strategies. Chicago-based Motorola is just one of the many high-tech American companies that has turned China into an R&D hub.
This latter development is especially worrisome given China’s invariable demands for technology transfers, and the fact that the People’s Liberation Army has its hands in everything that takes place in China. It is not too much of a stretch to say that American companies aid the Chinese military when they perform R&D in China. This is the same military that massacred the peaceful protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the same military that enforces the communists’ one-party rule.
Oh, and they also have nuclear missiles aimed at American cities.
But the policy of Washington—not to mention the American business community—has been that principle should never trump trade. Nothing—not massacres in communist capitals, nor nuclear missiles aimed at American cities—should take precedence over the growth of the abstraction known as the global economy. As recently as the postwar era, American business did just fine without the global economy as we know it today, but now we are told that unless we have unfettered trade and engagement with every nation on earth, the entire economic machine will come to a screeching halt, and we’ll all be riding around in horses and buggies again, and making our own homespun clothes because we can’t order them from China.
Ergo, trade with China. Also, trade with communist Vietnam, since Bill Clinton lifted the embargo in 1994. Vietnam is also a one-party communist dictatorship. The Vietnamese people are not free to criticize their government, but you might be gratified to know that there is now a Starbucks in Hanoi.
The only Asian communist country that we don’t trade with is North Korea. The reasons here, though, are related to specific situations rather than ideology or a lack of internal freedoms. No peace treaty was ever concluded for the Korean War of 1950-3. The Korean Armistice Agreement ended hostilities, but just barely. In the years since the war, the North Korean government has captured a U.S. navy ship, kidnapped Japanese citizens from their home islands, and conducted numerous acts of terrorism against South Korea—including the attempted assassination of South Korea’s president in 1983. And of course, there is the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
Cuba, by contrast, has no nuclear weapons program. And given the precedents set with China and Vietnam, it is difficult to find a reason why we shouldn't have trade and commerce with this relatively small Caribbean nation.
One of the justifications frequently given for trade with dictatorships is, “free trade will make them exactly like us!” This was more or less the argument that Bush 41 made for China’s MFN back in 1991.
We will have no leverage; we will not be able to advance our cause or resist repression if we pull back…We want to promote positive change in the world through the force of our example, not simply profess our purity. We want to advance the cause of freedom, not just snub nations that aren't yet wholly free.…
Fair enough. However it is difficult to assert that the U.S. is “changing” China when Beijing is the largest holder of U.S. debt, and they have nuclear missiles aimed at us. Distant Vietnam is also unlikely to turn into Orange County, California overnight. We didn't topple Vietnamese communism with our military. Does anyone seriously believe that we are going to get the job done with Starbuck’s?
Cuba, on the other hand, seems ripe for the soft imperialism of Yankee influence. With a population of 11 million, Cuba has about the same population as Ohio. On the other hand, Cuba’s economy is less than half as large as the economy of Ohio. The Republic of Cuba is a basket case economically, politically—in just about every way that a nation can possibly be a basket case. About the only things Cuba has going for it are sugar and those ridiculous Che Guevara tee shirts.
(Note: The image of the bloodthirsty Che Guevara is not copyrighted by Cuba, so the tee shirts sold in the U.S. aren’t currently made there or in any way licensed by the Cuban government. However, one can easily imagine a hipster sensation if official “Hecho en Cuba” Che shirts ever hit the U.S. market. This would provide a novel way for the American Left to show its solidarity with the twentieth century’s most stylish mass murderer.)
Unlike Vietnam or China, Cuba is small and weak, and close to the United States geographically. Less than one hundred miles of ocean separate Cuba and the Florida Keys. Cubans speak Spanish; so do millions of Americans. The culture of Cuba is quasi-European, just like the culture of the United States.
Once the glories of American capitalism become fully apparent to los cubanos, how long will it be before the Cuban masses are clamoring for their country to become the next Puerto Rico? I for one am betting that the communist parties of China and Vietnam survive American engagement a lot longer than the communist party of Cuba possibly can.
Nevertheless, it’s very apparent that much—if not most—of the Cuban-American community disagrees. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla), a Cuban-American and a fluent Spanish speaker, wasted no time in lambasting the opening to Cuba. Rubio’s logic seems to be that while Motorola transferring technology to the Chinese military is innocuous if not benign, even a paltry interaction between the U.S. and Cuba will permanently enshrine communism on the island:
Rubio dijo al presentador de CNN Wolf Blitzer que la reducción de las sanciones y el acercamiento a Cuba no mejorará las condiciones de los ciudadanos cubanos sino que convertirá al gobierno comunista en algo "permanente para siempre".
The word I hear and read with conspicuous frequency in the Spanish-language media of the U.S. is traición. This word means “treason” or “betrayal”. Traición is a strong word in Spanish, just as its equivalents are in English.
Consider the following headline, as but one example of this line of rhetoric:
Cubanos de Miami consideran 'traición' el acercamiento entre Cuba y EE. UU.
What breach has the U.S. government committed against Cuban-Americans that would qualify as traición? Since the communist takeover of Cuba, the United States has opened its doors to thousands of Cuban émigrés. Cuban-Americans have, it must be said, contributed immensely to American life. Among Hispanics, Cuban-Americans vote disproportionately Republican, and several of the GOP’s current wunderkinder (Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio) are of Cuban origins.
All fine and good. I wouldn't repatriate a single Cuban who came here since that country’s Marxist revolution. I do, however, object to the idea that the goals of the anti-Castro Cuban opposition, circa 1962, should become an unchallengeable fixture of American policy.
Because if that were the case, then what about the Vietnamese-Americans? The Vietnamese didn't leave their country en masse due to French colonialism, Japanese occupation, or three decades of civil war. It took a Marxist government in Hanoi to do that. Yet this is the very same government that Western companies are rushing to conclude deals with.
And what about all those Americans, now mostly in their sixties and seventies, who served in the Vietnam War? Should Starbucks really be serving up Frappuccinos and Chestnut Praline Lattes to a people who still officially embrace Marxism, who killed 58,308 American servicemen? (The Vietnamese government is also suspected of having kept American POWs in captivity long after the war—all of whom are probably deceased by now.)
For that matter, I’m sure there must be at least as few nonagenarian WWII vets who regard my choice of a Toyota Avalon as a traición. After all, the Empire of Japan did kill 2,403 Americans in a cowardly sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Japanese soldiers killed and mistreated thousands more American servicemen during the war that followed. (And we haven’t even touched what the Japanese did in Asia.)
My grandfather was a WWII vet who refused to drive anything Japanese for that very reason. He was a lifelong Ford man, and I only occasionally pointed out to him that Ford Motor Company not only purchased components from Japan, but also had a partnership agreement with the Japanese automaker Mazda for about thirty years!
I understood why my grandfather felt the way he did. But I also understood that history marches on, and there is no shortage of historical grievances in any direction. I’ve never held any individual Japanese responsible for Pearl Harbor, just as I’ve never felt any responsibility to apologize to my Japanese friends for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
And let us not forget that America’s first enemy was Great Britain—the country that most of us now regard as our closest ally. My grandfather was stationed in England during WWII and became a lifelong Anglophile. Think about what all those American Revolutionary War veterans would have thought! Oh, the traición.
During his farewell address, America’s first president, George Washington, admonished us to beware permanent alliances—and by extension, permanent enemies. Long before the revolutionary generation passed, there was already a faction of Americans who strongly advocated trade and cooperation with Great Britain—the country that tried its utmost to deny America its very existence. Oh, the traición.
Let us not delude ourselves: The communist regime in Cuba is pure evil, an anathema to freedom-loving people everywhere. However, there is really no legalistic argument to be made for not engaging with it, based on U.S. policy vis-à-vis other communist countries. Let’s face it: The prioritization of the global economy above all else often requires American corporations to become bedfellows with some bad actors—including many Marxist-Leninists with dictatorial streaks.
But if we truly believe that free trade can promote dissent within an unfree nation (and eventual “regime change” from within), then the Cuban government is a soft target, as dictatorships go. Starbucks won’t bring down communism in Hanoi or Beijing. It just might do so in Havana.
That would not be a betrayal of Cuban-Americans’ aspirations for a free Cuba. That would be a peaceful way of achieving what—to grudgingly quote President Obama—fifty years of embargo have failed to achieve.