Moves towards the normalization of relations and the relaxing of sanctions would rightly be less controversial and more widely celebrated had the United States achieved more in the deal with Cuba.
Changing policies is a bargaining chip with the Castro regime. Unfortunately, there isn’t anything that the United States has received for doing so. The prisoner swap was a separate deal.
Critics of America’s last half century of policy against Cuba often point out that it’s a vestige of the Cold War that failed to produce a democratic regime on the island that respects human rights.
The embargo is often contrasted with American policy towards other human rights violators such as the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Saudi Arabia and Egypt. These reasons are used to support President Obama’s moves to normalize relations with the Western Hemisphere’s only communist state.
However, this ignores clear differences between Cuba and those other states. Recognition and diplomatic relations with the PRC were given for entirely different reasons than a desire for democratization and liberalization. They were given to counter the influence of the Soviet Union.
By the 1970s, the Soviets and Chinese communists were no longer strong allies and were even adversarial towards one another. President Nixon went to China in order to exploit this development and weaken the Soviets. Neither democracy nor human rights had ever been a goal.
Today, the PRC is a great power with the world’s largest population and the second largest nominal GDP. Saudi Arabia is a major oil power. Egypt is the largest Arab country in the world. Both exist in a region that is quite volatile, to say the least.
Cuba, in contrast, is poor and an island. The reality of the situation demands that the United States keeps from taking too strong of a stance against the PRC, Saudi Arabia and other countries like them. This isn’t the case for Cuba.
Implementing our current measures today would be a mistake, but the policies already exist. Relaxing those policies should have been used to induce at least some greater recognition of human rights in Cuba.This may be impossible under the Castro brothers, they won’t be around forever. Fidel is 88 and Raul is 83. The United States could have relaxed policies against Cuba after they are gone in order to have greater influence during the power transition.
Still, even if more human rights recognition was out of reach, there are other things Cuba could have given the United States. Cuba is believed to be giving asylum to Joanne Deborah Chesimard, who is on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted Terrorists list. She is convicted in the murder of a police officer in 1973.
Surely her extradition would have been a reasonable request on the part of the United States in exchange for beginning the process of reversing decades of policy against the regime, especially considering that a prisoner swap was worked out as a separate deal.
Finally, some have argued that relaxing our policy might be beneficial to the United States in and of itself since it could expose Cuba to the benefits of freedom and a market economy. This is unlikely. Cuba has normal trade relations with other countries, including Canada and those of Western Europe.
Also, despite good relations with the United States, neither the PRC, Saudi Arabia nor Egypt are a bastion of human rights. True, the communists have liberalized some of their economic policies, and the Egyptians have kept peace with Israel. But the only real political change among the three of them was in Egypt, which the United States did nothing to initiate. There is no reason to believe that Cuba would be different.