Fidel Castro’s surprise withdrawal from a formal role in the Cuban government has, predictably, triggered calls for a reassessment of the American embargo. “A policy that made little sense in the cold war makes still less in today’s age of globalization,” the New York Times said this morning as it criticized the Bush administration. “Commerce is more likely than isolation to nurture positive political change.”
That is certainly conventional wisdom—a specialty of the Times—but is it true? Trade played a role in the failure of hardline governments in the last two decades, but none of them were totalitarian states. Severe economic failure—not success—preceded the collapse of Soviet bloc communism.
The Times cites our trade with China as a reason for ending the Cuban embargo, but this example merely illustrates that American policy has been inconsistent. Trade with China, if it shows anything, demonstrates that there is little correlation between commerce and political liberalization, at least over the short term. After all, the Chinese Communist Party has, in the last two decades, managed to increase both trade and political repression. So far, commerce has strengthened the hands of communists in China.
It is true, as the Times suggests, that Fidel has used the embargo as an excuse for his economic mismanagement, yet I suspect that by now most people on his island realize that it is his system that causes their plight, not American policy. As Alberto Luzarraga of the Cuban American Research Group noted during an earlier debate on the embargo, “Cubans are not morons.”
Even if we lift the embargo, Castro’s successors will not allow their economy to be overrun by American tourists, investors, and corporate executives. Fidel’s legitimacy, we should remember, is largely founded on his ridding the island of foreign exploiters and his creating home-grown socialism. Cuban leaders, in any event, would allow only enough commerce to maintain their regime, just as North Korea’s Kim Jong Il is doing today. It is a Fukuyama-induced fantasy to think that history has ended and that we can rid ourselves of despicable autocrats with just letters of credit and bills of lading. The Castro boys, Fidel and successor Raul, have survived just about everything during five decades and are not about to surrender to globalization.
An embargo helped kill communism in Europe, and it can also end it in the Caribbean. One day we will establish normal trading relations with Cuba, but that should not be before the people there govern themselves. “The post-Fidel era is clearly at hand, and the Bush administration has done almost nothing to prepare for it,” the New York Times said. Prepare for what? The embargo has been working all along, and it is up to the Cuban dictators to relax their grip, not us.