Yesterday, Havana celebrated the 50th anniversary of the communist revolution in subdued fashion. President Raul Castro, who formally took power last February, spoke from the same balcony where brother Fidel marked victory over Batista on January 1, 1959. Last year was especially tough on Cuba, which was struck by disasters both natural – three hurricanes – and manmade – its government.
True, Fidel Castro brought a measure of equality to the country and important advances in education and healthcare, yet he imprisoned and oppressed his fellow citizens and then impoverished them. After a half century, the record of the Cuban regime is one of failure. The best measure of society is that so many Cubans have left or want to leave. Leninist politics and Marxist economics are to blame.
Of course, the Castros, first Fidel and now Raul, blame the United States and especially the American embargo, which they say has had a $92 billion impact on the island in the 46 years it has been in place. The embargo is, in one sense, hard to justify. After all, we embrace governments posing far greater threats to the international community – China and Russia, for example – or ones that are substantially more repressive – Saudi Arabia immediately comes to mind. Moreover, the embargo is harsh enough to create real sympathy for the Castro brothers but is too weak to kill off their regime. When George W. Bush leaves office in a few weeks, the Castros will have outlasted ten American presidents.
The election of Barack Obama has given hope to many that a fresh approach will lead to better relations with the Havana regime. During the primary campaign he famously promised to talk to Cuba’s government unconditionally, and it appears he will lift some family-travel and cash-remittance restrictions on Cuba.
The problem, however, is that it is unlikely that Raul will take substantive steps to reform either the economy or the politics of the island. To date, he has only been willing to remove some of the visible prohibitions that have irked Cubans, such as the ban on staying in tourist hotels and owning cell phones, and implement half-hearted land measures. Whatever Obama does – short of toughening the embargo so that it becomes airtight – will not substantially change the behavior of the regime because its leaders remain unrepentant.
So until both Castros are gone, the best thing we can do is take our cue from Carlos Gutierrez. “To suggest unconditional dialogue with the Castro brothers would only signal that the conditions in Cuba are acceptable,” the Commerce Secretary, a Cuban-American, wrote this week in the Washington Times. “If the United States does not continue to stand for the ideals of freedom and human rights and against the many guises of tyranny and oppression, who will?”