Cuban Democracy?

Last Wednesday the President unveiled a new set of measures designed to nudge Cuba in the direction of democratic reform when the long overdue passing of Fidel Castro occurs.  Such speeches are usually made on the anniversary of some important date in Cuban history, but this one seems to have been given because the President had something to say and now was the time to say it.   

Cuba is a subject that flares onto the American conscience with predicable regularity.  Sometimes it’s for a reason as momentous as the 1961 Missile Crisis while at others it is as personal as where a six year old boy named Elian should live.  Equally predicable is how efforts to promote human rights and economic freedom are received by much of the media and what passes for the Washington foreign policy establishment.  Twenty four hours before the President spoke on Cuba his critics had already publicly dismissed his proposals as just more of the same.   

This is somewhat ironic, as it continues to be the critics of our long standing Cuba policy who seem to be stuck in time and unable to think of anything more creative than to “lift the embargo” while the President shows both resolve and resourcefulness in developing new ideas to restore democracy to that long suffering land.  

The fundamental question when debating Cuba is always who do we reach out to — the Castro Brothers and their lieutenants, or the human rights activists the regime so brutally represses and the vast majority of Cubans who dream of a better life.  For many the answer is clear: they always advocate engaging Fidel or now increasingly his brother Raul, arguing that the regime is benign or can voluntarily change. This despite a record of almost fifty years of summary executions, mass arrests, exile and repression on every level.
Say what you will about Fidel Castro. And let’s start with the fact that he’s a homicidal megalomaniac. But he has been remarkably consistent in his beliefs over the past half century and it is this consistency that has kept him in power.  While it certainly helps to have an efficient and ruthless secret police, the real reason Castro has outlasted so many others is that he has always understood that if you can control the economic life of an individual, you can control the political life too.  Thus, as a matter of policy his regime acts to monopolize all aspects of life in Cuba.  

A Cuban’s job, house, education, social organizations, even the food on the table comes from the State.  And the State can take any or all of this away at any time for any reason.  Western visitors scratch their heads over the seemingly dysfunctional economic choices the regime makes but this is because they don’t understand what is important to Castro — maintaining complete power trumps the well being of Cuba’s citizens every time.  

Fortunately, President Bush has been consistent too.  Since well before he was elected, he has made it clear that he doesn’t believe there is any reason to think that anyone named Castro is interested in promoting real reform — a position all his predecessors have ended up accepting, although a few of them had to learn the hard way that trusting Fidel doesn’t pay.  

Instead, the President has offered a way forward that could greatly speed the reintegration of Cuba into the family of democratic nations and the world economy.   Two measures in particular deserve attention.  

First, the President made a direct appeal to the Cuban military and police.  He noted that the moment will come when they have a choice to make — to violently repress their fellow countrymen seeking freedom or to refrain from such violent and allow their long national nightmare to come to an end.  The vast majority of the military and the police don’t directly abuse their fellow citizens and they can play an important role in protecting a new government from die hard adherents of the old regime.  

Second, the President announced the creation of an international multi-billion dollar Freedom Fund for a democratic Cuba.  Cuba has resources and a talented population.  What if hasn’t had is the individual freedom necessary to have a vibrant and self supporting economy.  The President’s proposal would allow that once basic human rights are restored to the island, individual Cuban entrepreneurs would be given access to grants and loans to rebuild the national economy.  

What is the alternative to such a common sense plan?   Proponents of an “open” approach to Cuba will tell you that we should lift the embargo and allow the American people to vacation freely in Cuba to spread “democratic values”.  The problem with this, of course is that there is no evidence that tourism has ever significantly undermined a repressive regime, anywhere or at any time.  Cuba has been welcomed large numbers of tourists for 15 years and currently receives over 2 million visitors a year, mostly from Western democracies, and no change in the regime’s behavior has resulted.

Democracy will come to Cuba — but not through the efforts of mojito drinking tourists on the beach.  Democracy will come through the efforts of the men and women who have been and continue to be willing to stand up to a repressive regime — even at great personal cost.  In word and deed we must make sure that we stand with the oppressed, not with their oppressors.  The President has again let the Cuban people know where we stand.