Cuban protests present historic opportunity for US
Massive protests have erupted in Cuba against ruthless dictatorship and cruel deprivation. Predictably, President Miguel Diaz-Canel, handpicked successor to the Castro brothers, blames the United States for everything. That is nothing new.
Dictator Fidel Castro died over four years ago. His importance as an epic Machiavellian revolutionary is undeniable. Epic economic mismanagement also characterized his decades in power.
In May 2015, the United States removed Cuba from the list of states sponsoring terrorism. This increased interchange between the two sides. Of particular significance, banking restrictions were lifted. President Donald Trump returned Cuba to the terrorist list.
In 2016, President Barack Obama visited Cuba. President Calvin Coolidge was the previous U.S. chief executive to visit, in early 1928.
Fidel Castro began transition of power to younger brother Raul Castro in 2006. Four years later, Fidel suddenly reemerged in the media spotlight and proceeded dramatically to lament the nation’s wrecked economy.
The Cuban government announced layoffs of 500,000 workers, combined with liberalization designed to encourage small business and foreign purchases of real estate. This was profound admission of failure by Cuba’s Communist leaders. Havana now courts foreign investment, while maintaining tight political control.
In 2009, the U.S. loosened extremely tight restrictions on travel and financial remittances. Additionally, telecommunications companies could pursue licensing agreements. Now, the desperate government has shut down the internet.
The Soviet Union, vital subsidy source, collapsed three decades ago. Venezuela provides some aid, but that economy is also a basket case.
Enemies as well as admirers agree Fidel Castro demonstrated exceptional leadership before age and illness led him to retire. After taking power in early 1959, enforcer brother Raul handled bloody mass executions with efficient dispatch.
Fidel highlighted new alliance with Moscow by joining Nikita Khrushchev in a 1960 visit to the United Nations in New York. At the U.N., the Soviet premier was wildly disruptive, while the Cuban delegation provided a media sideshow. The Eisenhower administration began clandestine efforts to overthrow the regime, including a CIA project to assassinate Fidel Castro. The successor Kennedy administration vastly expanded efforts.
Cuba actively promoted revolution. The U.S. countered, particularly in Chile, where East German as well as Cuban influence was strong. Moscow also used Cuban troops as proxies in Africa.
When Fidel retired, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice endorsed “peaceful, democratic change” and suggested the “international community” work directly with the people. We should emphasize educational and cultural exchanges. President Dwight Eisenhower did this successfully during the Cold War.
Above all, we should avoid directly acting to overthrow the regime. Previous armed interventions were highly counterproductive, and for many years provided the Castro brothers and now Diaz-Canel with the benefit of blaming all problems on “Yankee Imperialism.”
Cuba has been important in U.S. politics. In 1960, Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kennedy dramatically fanned flames of hostility to Castro in the close contest with the Republican nominee, Vice President Richard Nixon. Kennedy exploited alarm about a Communist state “90 miles away” and outflanked Nixon.
The Kennedy administration began with the disastrous Bay of Pigs fiasco. In October 1962, the Cuban missile crisis brought the world to the edge of nuclear war. A year later, assassin Lee Harvey Oswald met with Cuban intelligence officials in Mexico City.
As always, the current specific foreign policy options should be considered as much as possible in the context of a wider strategy. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. government has had multiple opportunities to encourage democracy and build new alliances. Cuba is hardly a candidate for immediate rapprochement, but the current popular unrest provides a major opportunity to strengthen our ties with the rest of the Americas, including Canada, which historically has followed a separate course regarding Cuba.
Most mercifully, we now have opportunities to support change from within. We should give thanks, and encourage them.
Learn More: Serhii Plokhy “Nuclear Folly — A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.”