Whatever battles lie ahead with Congressional hardliners who still believe in the Cuban embargo, the Obama administration’s initial steps towards a ’normalization’ of US-Cuba relations are a triumph of common sense after decades of political posturing.
For most of the last 50 years it has been painfully clear, even to the Castros’ most ardent critics that unilateral US sanctions have been part of a crude and ineffective policy. The US embargo has signally failed to retard economic growth in Cuba, or to stimulate credible opposition movements — the stated goals of the policy when it was first adopted by the Kennedy and Eisenhower administrations. Instead, it has hardened resistance to US influence, provoked Fidel Castro’s most dictatorial instincts, and led to the creation of a police state in which freedom of expression is severely limited and dissent often punished with the most draconian measures.
Over the years, US attempts to sharpen the sanctions’ teeth have only tended to make matters worse. In 1992, for example, the Cuban Democracy Act denied much-needed medical supplies to the island, an unconscionable decision that caused utterly pointless suffering for thousands of innocent citizens. Other hardline policies, like the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, have pandered too narrowly to the rabid anti-Castro interests which dominate Florida politics, a situation that has often constrained US diplomats and leaders from acting more decisively in the national interest.
Domestic support for the sanctions has waxed and waned in the United States over the decades, most memorably when the Carter administration’s relaxation of the embargo was abruptly overturned after President Reagan took office. Public opinion within the United States has always been divided as to the usefulness of the embargo, and mindful of its unwelcome side-effects. While failing to deliver political change within Cuba, the sanctions have also made the US look like a bully, even to countries that are otherwise skeptical of the Cuban revolution. In 2013, when the UN general assembly last voted on a motion to condemn the sanctions, an overwhelming 188 its 193 members opposed the policy.
If the current rapprochement is not scuttled by the US Congress, Cuba will likely develop a relationship with its former adversary not unlike that between China and the US. Sadly, China’s extraordinary recent economic development has shown that it is entirely possible for a totalitarian government to co-exist with economic liberalization–a disappointing prospect for Cuban citizens who hope for greater social and political freedoms. Striking the proper balance between democratic norms and the restrictive governance of Cuba’s political elite will be a long-term challenge for both countries but the imminent end of their long, sullen standoff, is an extremely promising start to the negotiations that lie ahead.