This article first appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE.
During the Cold War, many American liberals advocated indefinite coexistence with the Soviet Union. Indeed, nearly the entire foreign policy establishment embraced the underlying premise of détente, i.e., the Soviet model would always exist and must be approached accordingly. The left diagnosed the wrong problem during much of the Cold War, and thus prescribed the wrong strategy to ameliorate it. The problem wasn’t hostility between superpowers. The problem was the continued Communist domination of Eastern Europe and Russia. Thankfully, others realized that the Cold War could be won, and that the enslavement of millions behind the Iron Curtain was a grave injustice, not a fact to be accepted.
Today, the liberal establishment has repeated the mistakes of the Cold War. As Cuba’s isolation drags towards the six-decade point, President Obama has taken action to move towards normalized relations with the country. Furthermore, he has called on Congress to end its statutory embargo in Cuban trade. In January’s State of the Union address, Obama struck a tone of contented accomplishment: “In Cuba, we are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date…Our shift in Cuba policy has the potential to end a legacy of mistrust in our hemisphere; removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba; stands up for democratic values; and extends the hand of friendship to the Cuban people.”
The president has identified the wrong problem as it pertains to Cuba. Like his Cold War predecessors, Obama sees poor relations with Cuba, rather than the Castro regime’s dictatorial reign, as the main dilemma to be worked out. Cuba is ruled by a militaristic oligarchy that deprives its impoverished populace of basic liberties such as free speech, assembly, and of course, the vote. Relaxing tensions and eventually normalizing relations with the wardens of the Cuban prison-state will not help the Cuban people. The geopolitical importance of keeping Cuba isolated, which has stopped the Castros from fomenting leftist revolution and spreading their tyrannical influence, has been cast aside as a failure. Quite simply, the administration has it backwards: Hostile relations with the Cuban junta are a requirement for any liberty-loving nation, not a monument to Cold War-era squabbles.
Although President Obama cannot lift the embargo on his own, he has made it clear that if he had the power, he would do just that. The argument is often made that liberalizing trade would be mutually beneficial, and would help to alleviate Cuban poverty. One wonders whether, in any other context, the left would admit to free markets’ incredible ability to lift up the poor. Regardless, this argument is oftentimes persuasive, and were Cuba governed differently, conservatives would surely endorse it. But Cuba is not a valid trade partner — not as long as trade with the Cuban regime would facilitate the continued denial of rights and liberties to the Cuban people.
Many point to the examples of China and Vietnam as the way forward on Cuba. To varying degrees, U.S. policy has enabled totalitarian thuggery in both of those countries. China’s growth has indeed given rise to a middle class, but millions remain in poverty. Even if we accept the Chinese economic miracle (and neglect China’s human rights abuses, which are legion), the sheer size of China’s population, and thus its potential economy, makes it a poor comparison for Cuba. Vietnam may be a more suitable parallel, but the comparison should offer no solace to those concerned about Cuban détente. Western businesses have reaped the rewards of Vietnam’s economic liberalization, as have thousands of affluent European and American tourists. By celebrating Vietnam’s commercial progress, however, the West has conveniently whitewashed that country’s inhuman abuses of life and liberty. Ask an American businessman seeking to expand operations to Vietnam, and he will cite the government’s eagerness to do business with Westerners. It is far less likely that he is aware that Vietnamese state-run drug rehabilitation centers are a front for forced labor — the “Rehab Archipelago.”
American business interests are benefitting from Vietnamese liberalization, but the Vietnamese have gained precious little in the realm of human rights. Cuba carries the same risk. The economic opportunities presented by an opened Cuban market are indeed considerable. Corporate and political entities on both sides of the Florida Straits would profit from investment in the island. It is less clear, however, that increased investment would stay the brutal hand of the Castro regime. The Cuban dictatorship has relied on generous Venezuelan subsidies for years. Economic and political unrest have roiled Venezuela (not-so-incidentally, Venezuela is another country whose democracy movement has been ignored or undercut by this administration), and those subsidies are in increasing doubt. By opening Cuba to business investment, Americans could find themselves solving the Castro brothers’ cash flow problems, rather than aiding the average Cuban.
Even if the administration’s desired economic détente is prevented, diplomatic recognition of the Cuban regime is toxic to the cause of liberty. Keeping in mind the stubborn longevity of the dictatorship, the fact remains that Venezuela’s deteriorating ability to keep Cuba afloat presented a real opportunity for political change. Obama has effectively closed the door on that opportunity. Setting aside that miscalculation, however, doesn’t redeem the administration’s decision. By acceding to the regime’s long-held wish for recognition, the U.S. has dealt a severe blow to the Cuban democracy movement. Obama’s decision in effect guarantees that the Castro regime will persist for the foreseeable future and thus ensures that its insidious assault on the people of Cuba will continue as well. Some of Obama’s supporters protest that since the status quo hasn’t produced regime change, policy must be adjusted. This is fair. But nothing about the administration’s language indicates desire for regime change. To the contrary, this action rewards the regime.
Obama dresses his no-strings-attached bailout of the Castro brothers in language of compassion. This is only natural — the entire free world should mourn the oppression of the Cuban people. Why, then, are leading Cuban dissidents excoriating the administration’s decision? Yoani Sanchez runs a world-renowned blog, Generacion Y, which serves as a crucial outlet of (somewhat) free speech from within Cuba. Upon learning of the Obama White House’s decision, Ms. Sanchez remarked that “Castroism has won.” Jorge Luis García Pérez, a former political prisoner and leader of the Cuban resistance movement Atunez, voiced his opinion on Twitter, claiming that Obama had “betrayed” Cuba’s “yearnings for liberty.” Mr. Perez attended the State of the Union as a guest of House Speaker John Boehner.
Since the administration announced the changes, political arrests in Cuba have continued apace. As part of the deal, the Castro regime agreed to release its political prisoners, something they have promised the Pope and the Spanish government in the past — and which has never actually happened. Since December 17th, it appears that some 20-odd prisoners have been let out of jail. They are under constant surveillance and carry legally restricted status. Still, excuses are offered, and not one administration official has indicated that Cuba’s end of the “bargain” will be monitored. Instead, celebratory passages are added to the State of the Union address.
Weeks after the plan for normalized relations was announced, Raul Castro fulfilled the worst suspicions of the deal’s critics. The dictator has demanded that the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo Bay be returned to Cuba, and has called for vast sums in reparations. Most depressingly — and predictably — the Castro regime reiterated its refusal to change its single-party political system. As skeptics of Cuban détente predicted, the Castros have taken Obama’s bailout and leveraged it, with ample use of propaganda, for their own purposes. All this to earn a flailing administration a hollow foreign policy “achievement.”
* * *
Within seconds of President Obama’s announcement on Cuban relations, upper- crust liberals took to social media to express their approval and excitement. Some well-intentioned (but ultimately misguided) supporters were pleased to see steps being taken to help the Cuban people. Others used the moment to voice their craven desire to luxuriate in Cuba’s “quaint” atmosphere, undoubtedly assisted by a fresh mojito. Now, the mere desire to visit Cuba is certainly understandable. But it is beyond ironic to witness liberals, supposed defenders of the oppressed, wax poetic about the thought of their feet on Cuban sand whilst men in olive uniforms torment missionaries, aid workers, and political dissidents.
The left in America refuses to treat the Cuban regime with the disdain that it, and all such tyrannies, rightly deserve. Cuba gets carte blanche to torture and oppress. Perhaps this is due to a lingering leftist dalliance with the “romantic” nature of Fidel’s revolution (The enduring popularity of Che Guevara t-shirts bolsters this theory.) Or perhaps liberals, including President Obama, simply see Cuba as a handy brush with which to tar conservatives as Cold War throwbacks. Whatever the motivation, the tendency to pardon Cuba’s dictators has been revived, not quelled, by Obama’s policy decision. By taking executive diplomatic action to normalize relations with Cuba, this administration has thrown a life raft not to the people of Cuba, thousands of whom have risked everything to reach our shores, but to their oppressors.
In his finest address, Ronald Reagan decried those in America who would say to those under the Soviet heel, “Give up your dreams of freedom because to save our own skins, we’re willing to make a deal with your slave masters.” The context is different, but the lesson applies. Today, there is no threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union, but the liberal intelligentia still wishes to ignore those held in the Communist gulag — all for the sake of détente.
The cause of liberty in Cuba has been beset on all sides for the past 55 years. At times, U.S. policy has failed to aid that cause, but this latest change actively undermines it. Today, as the Cuban people yearn for liberty, we have made a deal with their slave masters. There is no greater shame.
— John Henry Thompson is Editor-in-Chief of THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE
(Like what you see? Support THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE!)