The Cuba Illusion Has Vanished – And Now The Embargo Should Too

Dec 18, 2014

Cuban women walk by wall graffiti in Havana.
Credit Flickr

In the wake of the historic Cuba policy changes President Obama ordered yesterday, Congress will now debate whether to scuttle the failed, 52-year-old trade embargo against the communist island.

Capitol Hill should indeed ditch it – and if it’s looking for reasons, it should consider some of the repulsive folks Washington has had to engage this year.

To win the release last May of U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was being held in Afghanistan by the Taliban – the same animals who massacred scores of innocent kids in Pakistan this week – the U.S. handed over five of its Taliban prisoners.

Just last month, in order to spring two Americans from behind bars in North Korea – the same country believed responsible for the recent hack attack on Sony Pictures and threats to blow up theaters where the film “The Interview” would play – the U.S. secretly negotiated with a hellish, hair-trigger communist regime.

Yet we considered it off limits to broker the release of an American rotting in jail in Cuba.

RELATED: Alan Gross And The Vatican: Could The Keys Of St. Peter Open A Cuban Jail Cell?

That is, until yesterday, when the Obama Administration delivered three Cuban spies doing time in U.S. prisons in exchange for an unidentified intelligence agent Washington wanted freed from prison in Cuba. That swap in turn unlocked the cell door for 65-year-old U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross, who was arrested in Cuba in 2009 and was serving a 15-year sentence on questionable espionage charges.

Just like that, the half-century-old illusion that Cuba was a special case – that it held a more supremely evil rank among nations than even North Korea, and therefore it could not be haggled with in ways we have to haggle with even the Taliban – was gone.

In its place came the realization that if we want to change the dictatorship in Cuba – and no sensible person denies that it’s a politically repressive and economically disastrous government – we have to engage it. Hence the tectonic shift in the U.S.’s utterly outdated, Cold-War-relic Cuba strategy that President Obama announced as Gross flew home to Maryland.

The Cuban Revolution will not be toppled by a hurricane. It will require termites chewing away at it. – Monsignor Agustin Roman

Insisting the U.S. has to drop the delusion that it can “keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result,” Obama disclosed he was re-establishing diplomatic relations with Havana, severed in 1961. That he would make it easier for Americans to travel to the island and do business with the growing ranks of Cuban entrepreneurs whose independence undermines communist authority.

What Cuban leader Raúl Castro conceded in return – the release of 53 political prisoners, enhanced Internet connectivity for Cubans, more U.N. and Red Cross human rights inspections – may have seemed scant.

But that’s a short-term consideration. The late Roman Catholic Monsignor Agustín Román, one of Miami’s most venerated Cuban exiles, once told me it was plain to him early on that Fidel Castro’s revolution would be toppled “not by a hurricane. It will require termites chewing away at it.”

Obama has authorized a long-term policy that finally lets the U.S. masticate instead of isolate. To start gnawing on the Castro regime by promoting democracy and capitalism on the ground in Cuba instead of shouting about them from the sidelines in Miami. The bet is that when the octogenarians Fidel and Raúl are gone, the Orwellian house the brothers built will sit on a shakier foundation.

What Obama couldn’t undo himself was the embargo, and the ban on U.S. tourist travel to the island, which only Congress can overturn.

It needs to do that now – because yesterday’s spy exchange made the new engagement tack all but irreversible.

GROSS CRISIS

Obama said he’d long been planning the Cuba changes, but that Gross’ imprisonment was an “impediment.” In reality, the Gross crisis may have actually paved the way for Obama's reforms:

Gross' ordeal moved Pope Francis last year to personally urge Obama and Raúl Castro to start hashing out their nations’ bitter differences. That led to secretive, 18-month-long negotiations that culminated in the spook swap, the release of Gross – and the decision to normalize relations, which Obama and Raúl finalized Tuesday on the first direct telephone call between U.S. and Cuban heads of state in almost 56 years.

All of that has now lifted an Oz-like curtain that the hardline Cuban exile leadership – which is still waiting for the hurricane to oust the Castros – had held rigidly in place for decades. What that curtain hid was the reality that we can engage Cuba without the world ending – and that it probably serves our long-term interests better, not just in Cuba but around Latin America.

Which is why the curtain should now fall on the embargo. It is, more than ever, the impediment to change in Cuba.

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor you can read more of his coverage here.