U.S. Should Take Steps to Encourage Reforms in Cuba
During a markup hearing in the House Agriculture Committee in June of this year, opponents of a bill that would restore the rights of American citizens to travel to Cuba argued that the move was a “concession to the Cuban regime,” and that the U.S. should not move unilaterally but rather demand positive steps from Cuban leaders first. One Representative opposing the bill argued that Cuba should release political prisoners before the Congress move to lift the travel ban, a demand frequently made by defenders of the status quo until recently. But then the Catholic Church in Cuba announced in July that Cuban leaders had agreed to free the remaining 52 political prisoners from the “Black Spring” of 2003 and just a quickly as word of the announcement spread through the world media, the very people who had been demanding their release as a condition to the lifting of the travel ban quickly dismissed the significance of the move. This has been the attitude that has characterized defenders of the status quo as long as Raul Castro has presided over the greatest number and scope of reforms in Cuba’s 50-year revolution.
While we would all like to see a quick and peaceful transition to democracy and open markets overnight in Cuba, the reality is that transitions are micro-processes. This is a fact that even George W. Bush recognized in a May 20, 2002 speech in Miami: “the United States recognizes that freedom sometimes grow step by step. And we’ll encourage those steps.” Unfortunately, this brilliant recognition and strategic policy of emboldening Cuba’s reformers was short-lived as defenders of the status quo quickly applied pressure on the former President to abandon this policy in favor of greater isolation. The result was the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which far from encouraging reforms in Cuba, was designed with a pressure-cooker solution in mind, a policy that aimed at starving the Cuban economy in hopes that the Cuban people, hungry and desperate, would rise up against a well-equipped and repressive State and bring about a transition at any cost.
Today, after a series of important, albeit limited, reforms by Raul Castro, including: legalizing the sale of electronics and cell phones, lifting the ban on Cubans entering resorts, the leasing of land to private farmers, expanding licenses for self-employment and several others, defenders of the status quo continue to dismiss the importance of such moves. Not only does such an attitude call into question their knowledge of the nature of transitions, but also their concern over the wellbeing of Cubans on the island. To dismiss the significance of the recent release of political prisoners, who spent seven years in deplorable conditions, ignores the importance of these steps for the prisoners and their families. While we can all agree that all political prisoners, not just the remaining 52 from the black spring, should be released immediately and allowed to stay in Cuba if they choose, to ignore that the releases represent a positive step belittles the suffering they endured in prison and does nothing to encourage further reforms.
Meanwhile, while the U.S. Administration delays any announcements on Cuba policy for domestic political reasons, Brazil’s Foreign Minister has offered to help develop small business in Cuba, saying that: “I believe Cuba's evolution - and I use this word deliberately - is a process that will increase opportunities.” I doubt anybody thinks that Mr. Amorim believes that Cuba’s recent announcement of economic reforms constitutes the final blow to communism on the island, but he is smart enough to recognize that the move represents an opportunity to encourage greater reforms: “"It doesn't pay off for Cuba to move 500,000 workers out of the public sector if they fall into the informal economy," “we are ready to co-operate.”
Whether it is defenders of the status quo dismissing the significance of reforms in Cuba, or the U.S. Administration delaying any reforms of its own for political considerations, the message being sent to Cuba is not one that will help embolden reformers and encourage greater reforms. A more constructive approach would be what Cuban democracy advocate and former political prisoner Oscar Espinosa Chepe calls optimistic criticism, whereby we recognize the positive steps being taken by the Cuban government and highlight where they fall short in order to encourage additional steps. A former Ambassador to the U.S. from an Eastern European country once explained to me that every communist government has reformers within it (he admitted to having been one himself), who each day test how far they can push the envelope. He explained, that our job is to help embolden those reformers as they risk their flesh in pressing for greater reforms. The U.S. should take note of Brazil’s move and instead of playing politics with its policy toward Cuba, take steps to encourage reforms in the island.