By Nick Gillespie
As Robby Soave noted and Ed Krayewski noted recently, there’s muy partisan bluster surrounding President Obama’s decision to change the United States’ relationship with Cuba from 50-plus years of failed attempts at isolating the Castro brothers’ personal tropical-island prison. Keep in mind that re-establishing diplomatic ties and other actions do not in any way lift the trade embargo, which needs to be done by Congress. Obama is in no way abusing his power as president in anything he’s doing here.
Obama’s actions may not be the boldest gambit imaginable, but it is a very good thing, I think. Our country’s posture and policy toward Cuba has been a miserable failure for the past half-century that has done nothing to loosen the grip of an autocratic despotic regime over its own people. And it has accomplished nothing good for Americans, either, even those who were forced to seek refuge on our shores. America’s Cuba policy is the very definition of government failure, something you’d think conservatives, who are always quick to talk about how government screws everything up, would recognize.
That said, the only thing more pathetic than excellent investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill’s zinger about how he “is very glad I was able to visit Cuba several times before US tourists try to turn it into Cancun” is the response of Republican (and some Democratic) pols who are pledging to NEVER end the embargo as long as a Castro anywhere draws a breath (and Bacardi or U.S. sugar interests write a check). When Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) calls Obama’s new policy “a victory for oppression,” the Cuban American is ignoring basic reality. American policy toward Cuba for the past 50-plus years was a victory for oppression, so complete that it allowed the odious Raul Castro to succeed his godawful brother as a maximum leader. Get it: American policy was so rotten it allowed for a hereditary transfer of power in the autocratic country under sanction. The only other places that have managed that trick are other targets of U.S. diplomatic isolation Syria and North Korea. As John McCain, who pushed to open up relations with communist Vietnam years ago but denounced Obama’s actions toward Cuba, could tell you, America has no problem dealing with all sorts of morally despicable governments.
Simply put, Rubio and many other Republicans are confusing political posturing with principle and pragmatism (those last two are not always mutually exclusive). If the goal of the trade embargo and cutting off diplomatic ties with Cuba was to weaken the awful Castro regime, it’s been a total bust. We’re years into Castro 2.0 and there’s zero reason to believe anything will change anytime soon. The only thing the U.S. stance has done is give the Castro brothers a false though handy explanation for every austerity measure they impose on their subjects and every act of political oppression they commit.
There’s no question that Cuba is poor and miserable and unfree because of the Castros and the despotic regime they oversee. Cuba is free to trade with every country in the world except for the United States. The country’s failure to flourish is because of the ruling junta, period. Anyone who suggests otherwise is denying basic reality.
Yet it’s equally true that people who insist that America’s Cuba policy is defensible or in any way successful are equally deluded and should be called out on such patent b.s. When I was in college back in the 1980s, “disinvestment” from South Africa was a big deal. Right-thinking people of the time—by which I mean left-leaning people—said it was morally unconsciable to do business with the apartheid regime even as they called for a lifting of the trade embargo with Cuba. Regular Cubans were suffering from our actions they said. If we allowed trade and travel, the humanitarian lefties would explain, we might spread wealth and democratic values by our presence and contact. Right-wingers defended staying in South Africa as a way of spreading American influence there while also defending the Cuban embargo as a way of punishing autocrats.
To put it bluntly, each side in that debate was full of crap. For a variety of political affiliations and exigencies, they were willing to consign the oppressed and the voiceless to deprivation and persecution in the name of selective moral outrage. Economic and diplomatic sanctions by the U.S. didn’t help end apartheid and the same sort of policies haven’t made Cuba become an open society.
Obama’s moves toward Cuba are a step in the right direction. Here’s hoping that the new Republican majority will rally around its supposed small-government bona fides and recognize that the government of all entities has no right telling Americans where they can travel, invest, or send money to. And if that sort of basic appeal to first principles isn’t enough, maybe they can take comfort in the fact that “Castro’s Hipster Apologists” will shed many bitter tears when Starbucks and Urban Outfitters and Tesla help remake Cuba into something more like America.
Nick Gillespie is the editor in chief of Reason.com and Reason TV and the co-author of The Declaration of Independents: How Libertarian Politics Can Fix What’s Wrong With America