Thursday, July 31, 2008

Regarding As Raúl Transforms Cuba, Washington Refuses to Budge

COHA Research Associate Michelle Quiles wrote the following Op-Ed regarding the recent reforms enacted by Raúl Castro in Cuba. She argues that the significance of these reforms warrants an international response such as the EU’s decision to lift its diplomatic sanctions against the island.

On July 4, Cuba witnessed the imprisonment of pro-democracy dissidents wishing to commemorate U.S. Independence Day. Even though Cubans are accustomed to these exhibitions of intolerance, Raúl Castro’s recent reforms seemed to portend a new era of liberalization. Hope was again renewed when, three days later, the Cuban government kept its promise of using detainment merely as a warning and released the dissidents. This setback, though, is not surprising considering the U.S.’s unremitting hostility towards the island. The Cuban government argued that the U.S. Interests Section in Havana was aiding opposition groups and that Washington would be “responsible” for the “consequences” of these actions, hence the detainments.

Therefore, Washington’s continued hard-line approach towards Cuba has been largely responsible for repeatedly providing the revolutionary government with a justification for concentrating power and enforcing loyalty to the government, so as to protect itself from the “American empire’s attacks.” The Cuban Revolution was successful precisely because of its anti-imperialist rhetoric, which fed Cubans’ desire to free themselves from American intervention in their domestic affairs. It is Washington’s obstinacy, not Raúl’s determined effort, which reduces the U.S.’s ability to negotiate and encourage a continuation of Raúl’s liberalizing reforms.

In February 2008, Fidel Castro transferred power to his younger brother Raúl, sparking a worldwide dialogue regarding the implications of the first major transition of power seen in Cuba in almost five decades. Although the majority of observers believe that Havana has, in fact, carried out many significant reforms, the Bush administration views these recent developments as merely cosmetic because of continued instances of repressive state control. Although Cuba is still far from being a liberal democracy, it is narrow-minded to label Raúl’s reforms as inconsequential. His administration has become much more tolerant of opposition groups, given many islanders titles to their homes, eliminated the salary cap, and decentralized agriculture. In addition, it has released political prisoners, commuted thirty death sentences, and unofficially abolished capital punishment.

Raúl Castro has implemented policies that his brother Fidel blocked for decades. Even if Raúl is not interested in carrying out further reforms, he has dared to raise expectations on the island and abroad, contributing to the mobilization of a citizenry intent on effecting real change. Reversing this liberalization process now could potentially result in stiff opposition from Cubans who have tasted change and do not wish to give it up.

Analysts should not limit the definition of Cuban progress to an automatic compliance with western democratic standards. The government has controlled most aspects of its citizens’ lives since the Revolution. Fidel micromanaged the island’s politics and economics, making the government synonymous with his persona. This cannot be reversed overnight. Now that he has formally stepped down, the government will need to differentiate the executive office from Fidel in order to promote a new style of autonomous governance. Raúl has not been overly aggressive in transforming his brother’s state, but he has certainly started to create a sharply different Cuba.

The EU’s recent decision to lift its diplomatic sanctions against Cuba is precisely how the international community should greet Raúl’s positive changes. Sanctions were imposed to pressure Havana to democratize, but proved ineffective. Not even the U.S. economic embargo, which profoundly hurt the Cuban economy, was effective in coercing Fidel to conform to Washington’s desiderata. The embargo’s only discernible accomplishments have been to promote economic instability, resulting in the further deterioration of the lives of average Cubans. In fact, the rationing system was implemented due to the lack of food and supplies caused largely by the embargo. This attempt to topple the revolutionary government has failed repeatedly. It is time for a different tactic.

By lifting the sanctions, the EU is not merely opening the path to dialogue and positively reinforcing Raúl’s progressive actions now and into the future; it is also performing an enormous act of good faith that could fully restore Havana’s connection to the international community. The question now remains: will the US follow suit or will it maintain a policy that has only produced negative results? Lifting the embargo would not only open communications but also eliminate the justification of American intervention used repeatedly by the Cuban government to detain dissidents and quarantine hostile ideas.

Michelle Quiles
Research Associate, Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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