The U.S. embargo on Cuba — or what’s left of it after President Obama’s dramatic Cuba policy announcement — may be a futile gesture. But it is, or was, not an empty gesture.
It put the United States firmly on record that it would have as little as possible to do with a regime whose misdeeds have included inviting Soviet nuclear weapons onto its soil, sponsoring violent guerrilla groups throughout the Western Hemisphere, harboring fugitives from U.S. justice and systematically trampling its citizens’ most basic rights.
In place of this clear position, Obama has taken a stance that is more nuanced morally but, he assures us, more efficacious practically.
He might be right, if you believe that this administration, or its successors, will have the diplomatic smarts and the attention span to maneuver the Castro regime into letting its people have more freedom.
Count me among the skeptics.
To be sure, President Raul Castro is in a world of trouble, what with his failing economy and the likelihood that declining oil prices will force Havana’s Venezuelan sponsors to reduce their subsidies.
The one thing he does have is a clear goal, keeping himself and Cuba’s Communist elite in power, and a time-tested approach for doing so: permitting the minimum economic and political liberalization consistent with total control, and nothing more.
Greater engagement with the United States poses risks to the regime, not the least of which is that incoming tourists and businessmen will start to erode the pervasive system of social and political control.
But Cuba’s authorities have years of experience manipulating foreign investors from Latin America, Canada and Europe and with controlling Cubans’ interactions with foreign visitors.
And Obama’s measures, particularly greater remittances from U.S.-based Cubans, promise to bring much-needed hard currency to the perennially cash-strapped island.
By contrast, Obama not only abandoned long-standing U.S. policy, he also denounced it, giving the regime a huge propaganda victory.
The president traded these valuables for the wrongly imprisoned American Alan Gross — but no verifiable, irreversible democratic reform on Cuba’s part.
The president made no forthright demand for free elections, just freedom for Cubans to “participate in the political process,” a right the Castros already claim to guarantee.
He spoke loosely of “empowering Cubans to build an open and democratic country,” with the help of greater remittances from their stateside relatives, more contact with U.S. travelers and businesses and so on.
Raul Castro knows that when the hoopla over this week’s big policy move is over, Obama and most of the rest of official Washington will move on to other things.
Meanwhile, Castro and his fellow military officers will remain in firm control of the political and economic levers of power in Cuba, including the little things — jobs, visas, building permits, export and import licenses, court cases — that really determine whether and how Cubans and Americans get to interact and how much freedom seeps in to the deeply traumatized society.
Charles Lane is a member of The Washington Post’s editorial board.