What's so Bad About Cuba?

Why some dictators are better than others

The Cuban embargo was established more than fifty years ago. In addition to being a protest against the communist political policies of Fidel Castro, it was designed to hasten the fall of his regime. So as a regime change plan, it has been one of our nation’s most spectacular foreign policy failures. President Obama says that it is time to try something new, and it’s hard to argue that he is way off base. Only the die hard anti-Castro Floridian Cubans are raising any strong objections, along with Republicans convinced that anything Obama does is wrong because he did it.

Some people argue that Obama’s effort to establish closer diplomatic and economic ties to Cuba is a better plan for either bringing down the Castro regime or for nudging the Cuban government toward reform. In my view, ending the embargo is unlikely to bring significant political reform in the short term. Raul Castro, who has ruled the country since Fidel basically disappeared from public life, is going to do what he thinks is necessary to squash any dissent and maintain power. It is even possible that economic improvements resulting from closer ties to the United States will give him even more resources and motivation to clamp down.

But even if the Castro regime remains essentially dictatorial, it’s hard to understand why the United States has been so committed to ostracizing them. Sure, Fidel Castro has racked up a lousy human rights record over the decades. The same can be said, however, for a wide assortment of nations with whom the United States has enjoyed close political and economic ties. Even China, an officially communist nation with a lousy human rights record, has become in recent years one of our biggest trading partners. So why ostracize Cuba and increase trading relations with places like China and Vietnam?

The simple fact is that the United States has never had a huge problem with dictators. So long as a foreign government maintains order and allows American businesses to operate there, we will look the other way if they lack free elections, crush any forms of dissent, and if political leaders pocket a lot of money for themselves. The problem with Cuba is that it has remained essentially a true communist dictatorship, a nation in which the state controls the economy and has not allowed American businesses to operate there freely. It has been communist economic systems, not dictatorial political systems, which the United States historically has been unable to tolerate. In a world where the United States and other modern industrial nations need the resources, cheap labor, and markets that foreign countries provide, the spread of communism has always represented a grave threat.

China and Vietnam, while still communist in name and ruled by one-party dictatorships, have not been true communist economies for some time. For decades now, their paths to salvation have been cheap manufactured goods and high rates of GDP growth rather than Maoist social and economic equality. If the Castro brothers are smart, they will begin adopting the Chinese and Vietnamese versions of “communism” as soon as possible. They can then keep their regime in power while promoting enough economic growth to keep most of the population from revolting against them. And so long as they begin allowing American businesses to operate in Cuba more freely, they can crush any dissent without the United States complaining too much. Because if Fidel is planning to fulfill his promise of living to be at least 100 years old, he and his brother need to start planning for the long-term.

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