Friday, October 24, 2003

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Debating the Cuba embargo

The New York Times reports a growing split within Congress on the merits of the Cuba embargo:

In a firm rebuke to President Bush over Cuba policy, the Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly voted to ease travel restrictions on Americans seeking to visit the island.

The 59-to-38 vote came two weeks after Mr. Bush, in a Rose Garden ceremony, announced that he would tighten the travel ban on Cuba in an attempt to halt illegal tourism there and to bring more pressure on the government of Fidel Castro....

The vote also highlighted a widening split between two important Republican constituencies: farm-state Republicans, who oppose trade sanctions in general or are eager to increase sales to Cuba, and Cuban-American leaders, who want to curb travel and trade to punish Mr. Castro. The White House views Cuban-Americans as essential to Mr. Bush's re-election prospects in Florida.

The Senate last rejected an easing of travel restrictions in 1999, by a vote of 43 to 55. But in an indication of how much the political and policy pendulum has swung, 13 senators who voted against easing the curbs four years ago switched sides and voted for it on Thursday.

David Adesnik certainly thinks this the travel ban should be lifted:

It's time to lift the travel ban, lift trade restrictions, lift everything. Cuba is a small island just off the coast of Florida. The more open it is to American influence, the more its people will recognize that there are alternatives to living in a police state of misery....

We are going to overwhelm Cuba with ideas. And we may be able to foster something of a private sector that has assets of its own. Moreover, even Castro's loyal bureaucrats may recognize that their cut of the goods is nothing compared to what it would be if liberalization went even further.

As someone who can plausibly claim some genuine expertise on this issue, I'm mildly in favor of lifting the embargo. First, it's clear that forty years of the embargo has not succeeded in overwthrowing Castro. Given that record, trying the engagement track can't make things any worse.

Second, anyone who thinks that engagement will have a dramatic effect on the situation is fooling themselves. The difference between Cuba and China is not just one of size -- it's also a difference in regime. What I wrote earlier this year in reference to North Korea holds with equal force in dealing with Cuba.

This gets to the distinction between a totalitarian and an authoritarian state. China or Singapore fall into the latter camp -- political dissent is stifled, but in other spheres of life there is sufficient breathing froom from state intervention to permit the flowering of pro-market, pro-democratic civil society. North Korea is totalitarian, in the sense that the state control every dimension of social life possible.

In authoritarian societies, the introduction of market forces and international news media can has the potential to transform society in ways that central governments will not be able to anticipate. In totalitarian societies, reform can only take place when the central government favors it. These societies have to take the first steps towards greater openness before any outside force can accelerate the process. Usually, such societies turn brittle and collapse under their own weight....

For the past decade, the DPRK [and Cuban] leadership has been completely consistent about one thing -- it prefers mass famine and total isolation over any threat to the survival of its leadership. Uncontrolled exchange with the West will threaten that leadership. I have no doubt that Pyongyang [and Havana] is enthusiastic about the creation of segmented economic zones where foreign capital would be permitted -- so long as the rest of North Korean [and Cuban] society remained under effective quarrantine.

So, why support a change in policy? On the off chance that I'm wrong and the Castro regime falls. A regime transition with the U.S. already on the ground in Cuba will be much smoother than a regime transition without any such interaction.

posted by Dan on 10.24.03 at 12:06 PM


We should lift the economic embargo. The odds are favorable that this might subtly undermine the current Cuban dictatorship? Am I certain that this will occur? Nope, but who ever promised you a risk free existence? One cannot forevermore study every issue. In the long run, as Lord Keynes once said, we are all dead.

posted by: David Thomson on 10.24.03 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

I have visited Cuba and only read limited accounts of the few visitors who have been allowed into North Korea. Based on this information I believe the level of freedom in each place is many degrees apart. While Castro would love for all tourists to only visit "quarrantined" beach resorts, the truth is that many visitors spend a lot of time in Havana. There is a high level of mixing between tourists and natives all over the city, with the enforcement of controls on tourists being similar to under-age drinking control in college (i.e. don't ask, don't tell). Increasing the level of tourism will increase the mixing and make it still harder for the regime to exert any control over most Cubans.

I don't think that this will be a silver bullet for regime change, but it would also be a mistake to think that it will have no impact on Cuba. A good portion of the accomodation and meals available in Havana is from privately owned operations in people's houses. While I am sure this is monitored by the state, it seems to point towards the re-emergence of the Cuban middle class.

And while Cubans on the street are somewhat apprehensive of doing business (i.e. selling Cigars and Rum) with tourists in public, they have no problem talking with tourists in public parks (and will not hesitate to slip you into a local bar for a drink and a half price sale of some local goods). I don't think more tourists to talk to will change the regime, but it will certainly allow news of the world which differs from Castro's view (not that information is a huge problem for Cubans today).

It just seems that increased trade (especially tourism) will go a long way towards integration of Cuba into the western world, and that any lumping together of Cuba and a place like North Korea or Sadaam's Iraq in terms of control of the public is a bit strained.

posted by: Rich on 10.24.03 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

Good commentary (all). To which I would add one question: what is the constitutionality of our govt's prohibition on citizens going ANYWHERE? We can go to war zones, we can go to China, or Burma; we can (I believe) go to N. Korea. We go to Cuba, we run the risk of being put in jail. This alone is enough for me to question the policy.

posted by: Kelli on 10.24.03 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

I'm confused. Is there really mass famine in Cuba? I've never heard of this anywhere else.

posted by: Bob McGrew on 10.24.03 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

Timely (as in now) and comprehensive planning across the federal government for the time when Castro dies is far more important than what we do about the travel or trade embargoes against Cuba now. There is no evidence that either American tourists or American soybeans will change anything fundamental about Cuba's government, but Castro's death certainly will, and whatever that change is will have implications for the United States in many areas.

I cannot get to excited about the "whither embargo" debate because I just don't think how the question is decided is that important.

posted by: Zathras on 10.24.03 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

I've never liked the idea of the American government telling me where I can and can't travel so I contemplated taking a trip to Cuba last year via Mexico. I ended up not going, but I'm not aware of American tourists being restricted to segmented economic zones there. From the somewhat limited research I did I was under the impression that tourists were pretty much free to travel wherever they liked within Cuba.

posted by: Randal Robinson on 10.24.03 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

Dan: Good analysis!

I have long favored lifting the embargo as it only punishes the Cuban People, it helps Castro.

It is time a president tells the Cuban population in Florida that it can no longer dictate foreign policy towards Cuba.

posted by: tallan on 10.24.03 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

Once again, the "real" story get's missed. It's not about whether or not we should ease up the embargo or not. Castro is a real-honest-to-goodness torturing secret-police tyrannical rights-abusing dictator. Give him the Glasnost and Peristroika treatment.

I find it ironic however that some of the same people who are advocating using engagement to undermine Castro, were so damn adamant about either supporting sanctions on Hussein or the absolute taboo of engaging with Iraq.

What it is about is it's about President Bush using a cheap shot at Castro to try to bolster his falling tough-guy and man-in-charge image. It's also about the Rebellion in the Ranks of the Republicans who are sick and tired of covering for the President and him not being able to *deliver* and then embaressing them. That's what it's about.

posted by: Oldman on 10.24.03 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

The only people who should be supporting a cuban embargo are the anti-globalization crowd. Lucky Cubans, being spared the depredations of international capital.

posted by: gerald garvey on 10.24.03 at 12:06 PM [permalink]


I don't suppose any consideration of the impact of the embargo on the Cuban people down the years - that is whether it had compounded the damage done by Castro, further impoverishing a third (second?) world country - might enter into our discussion of this matter?

posted by: james on 10.24.03 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

Don't Western Europeans travel to Cuba? Has this engagement had a positive effect?

(I'm not trying to be rhetorical here, just asking.)

posted by: E. Nough on 10.24.03 at 12:06 PM [permalink]

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