Appease Cuba? What Would Winston Churchill Say?
Several former Castro’s government officials such as Cuba’s former Ambassador to the United Nations, Alcibiades Hidalgo and ex diplomat Juan Antonio Blanco, who worked in the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, have explained how Cuban leaders need enmity with the United States to derive their internal legitimacy and protect their authoritarian privileges. According to these former officials, every time there was a chance of lifting the embargo, Fidel Castro did something to keep it: Angola (1975), Ethiopia (1977), and the shoot down of the Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996.
Those views are an exaggeration of Cuba’s policy towards the United States but I don’t dismiss their evidences. For some in the Cuban leadership, “anti-imperialism”, manifested at its worst as “anti-Americanism”, is central to their identity. Cuban nationalists have a long list of historic complaints and grievances against U.S. interventionism, from the exclusion of the Paris Treaty in 1898 and the Platt Amendment in 1902 to the Helms-Burton Act in 1996.
Fidel Castro’s opposition to U.S. policies over the world is documented and consistent. The Cuban “historicos”, the generation who fought in the revolution, don’t secretly aspire to be United States’ allies or to relations between Cuba and the United States of the cordial kind Russia and Finland have. It is logical, they know only one way to govern, the “under siege” one. A rapprochement with the United States would unleash unpredictable pressures for reform and public deliberation, with more transparency and opportunities for those who think differently. Such a situation would undoubtedly dilute their power.
But there is a growing pluralism not only in Cuban civil society but also within the Cuban elites. The business of revolution for many of the sons and daughters of those who fought in Sierra Maestra or Bay of Pigs is not communist revolution but business in a globalized economy. Communism is as much a bankrupt ideology in Havana as in Moscow or Beijing. Some months ago, Esteban Morales, a leftist intellectual, denounced corruption, authoritarian lack of transparency, and inefficiencies as the most powerful threats against the current system.
The rise of Raul Castro to power brought expansions of the Revolutionary Armed Forces-security complex over the Cuban state. The FAR apparatus supposedly designed to defend the party control over the Cuban government is today master of the state and the party. Most of the new military cadres come from a different experience than the revolution “historicos”. Their professional career is related not to the fights of the 1960’s but to the Africa wars that ended in a compromise with the United States and South Africa, and the economic management of the new sectors developed in the last two decades. Contrary to most of the “historicos”, these cadres or their immediate relatives have contacts with friends and family in the Cuban American community.
Therefore a policy of engagement can bring substantial political gain by undercutting the blame-the-blockade narrative and exposing Cuban pluralist civil society and elites to people to people contacts with the United States through academic, educational, cultural, sports and even simple tourism exchanges.
Only in Miami could Ninoska Perez, a well-known hard-line radio show host, reject such engagement because “Adolf Hitler was able to murder six million Jews, while apologists found excuses to justify his crimes. It is no different in Cuba” without raising concerns about her mental health. No matter how repugnant certain of Castro’s policies might be towards political prisoners or Cubans living abroad, any comparison with the power, aims and Human Rights violations of Hitler’s Germany or, for that matter, the apartheid regime in South Africa and its colonial rule over Namibia, is simply nonsense. Unfortunately, Mrs. Perez’s analogies are not marginal among the right wing exiles who defend the Helms-Burton Act, the legislation that guides current U.S. policy towards Cuba.
Of course, this is delusional. The Cuban communist political system and command economy might have prevented economic development of the Cuban people and repressed its civil and political liberties but there is little evidence about genocidal or expansionist tendencies in Raul Castro’s government. The U.S. inclusion of Cuba in the terrorist list of the State department is seen as the world paradigm of political manipulation of a core theme of American foreign policy for domestic political reasons.
So, where does a policy of engagement - or as critics would call it, “appeasement” - fit in? In fact, appeasement shouldn’t be a bad word for U.S. policy towards Cuba since the island is a minor power with limited capacity to cause damage to U.S. national interests.
As Winston Churchill, the main opponent of appeasing Hitler, wrote in 1950: “The world appeasement is not popular but appeasement has its place in all policy. Make sure you put it in the right place. Appease the weak. Defy the strong”. Cuban nationalism and its sense of victimhood have never been a stronger conviction of the Cuban people. But the Cuban state’s power position versus foreign powers is the weakest since 1959. Under the weight of the Special Period, the period of crisis that began in 1989 and amount to forty percent of post revolutionary history, the Castros’ regime is economically exhausted. This is why Raul Castro is attempting a serious reform.
Now is most likely the optimal time for the United States to address appeasable Cuban nationalism and engage Cuban post-revolutionary society. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, the question should be whether Cuban power holders see virtue in a permanent conflict with the United States, or there is space for accommodation of Cuba’s national interests in a U.S. led world order. Only through engagement can Obama test whether Cuba’s new leaders are rooted in a Cold War opposition to the United States, or are just defending their interests, values and privileges against U.S. impositions.