U.S. Economic Determinism in Dealing with Cuba

In reality the cause of Cuba’s economic problems is not the embargo but a failed economic system. Like the Soviet and Eastern European Marxist economies, Cuba’s system is antiquated, inefficient, and corrupt. It does not encourage productivity or individual initiative.

By Jaime Suchlicki l May 8, 2014

The views toward Cuba of many in the U.S. policy establishment have been influenced by a variety of assumptions. First and foremost, there is the strong belief that economic considerations could influence Cuban policy decisions and that an economically deteriorating situation would force the Castro brothers to move Cuba toward a market economy and eventually toward political reforms. This has not happened, General Raul Castro has introduced limited economic reforms in an attempt to muddle through a difficult situation. Yet the reforms are not structurally profound, nor are they propelling Cuba to the marketplace. In Cuba, economic decisions are determined by political and ideological considerations.

The second assumption is that the embargo is the cause of Cuba’s economic ills. This notion has been propagated continuously by the Castro regime in an attempt to force the United States to unilaterally lift U.S. sanctions.

In reality the cause of Cuba’s economic problems is not the embargo but a failed economic system. Like the Soviet and Eastern European Marxist economies, Cuba’s system is antiquated, inefficient, and corrupt. It does not encourage productivity or individual initiative. If Cuba were to export and produce more, it could buy any products it needs from other countries. For Cuba, the United States is the closest but not the cheapest market. What the Castro regime would like is American tourists and credits to help scrape by without making major economic or political changes.

The third assumption is that leaders from other countries are very much like American leaders, except that they speak a different language. We assume that these leaders share our values and perceptions and that, therefore, they will behave as we do. We believe that we can negotiate with them most, if not all, of our mutual problems, that we can find common ground and work out differences.

Nothing could be further from the truth. There are leaders, particularly in the developing world, who don’t share Western values. They see the world very differently than we do. Perhaps the result of their educational, religious, or cultural background, perhaps the result of their own experiences, they think and act very differently.

The Castro brothers belong to this group. What characterizes them is a self-righteous assurance that they know what’s best for their countries and an unwillingness to compromise their views even to the extent of sacrificing their people in the pursuit of their ideas. They have a commitment to remain in power, since they believe that no other individual can carry out the anointed task of transforming and leading their countries. Compromise is seen as a short-term, sometimes forced, tactical move to achieve long-term strategic objectives. Negotiations with these leaders are usually of little value, and agreements are of short duration.

America’s long-held belief that, through negotiations and incentives, we can influence Raul and Fidel Castro’s behavior has been weakened by their unwillingness to provide major concessions to the United States. They prefer to sacrifice the economic well-being of the Cubans rather than cave in to demands for a different Cuba, politically and economically. Neither economic incentives nor punishment have worked with the Castros in the past. They are not likely to work with them in the future.

For the past 50 years the U.S. has made attempts to negotiate with the Cuban leadership. Every time they have been rebuffed. The Castro brothers have repeated continuously that the principles of the revolution are not negotiable. They remain enemies of the U.S. In 1948 Fidel Castro distributed, as a young student, anti-American propaganda in Bogota, Colombia. In 1958 while in the mountains fighting the Batista dictatorship, he wrote to a close confidant: “my real struggle will begin after we reach power, that struggle will be against the U.S.”

Which brings us to the obvious conclusion that not all differences and problems in international affairs can be solved through negotiations, or can be solved at all. This reality vitiates an assumption that has permeated American foreign policy for decades. There are international disputes that are not negotiable and can be resolved only though the use of force or through prolonged patience until the leadership disappears or situations change. While some differences naturally can be solved through negotiations, others are irreconcilable.

Yet the belief that Cuba’s economic crisis will lead to major political changes continues to permeate American thinking about Cuba. We seem to cling to an outdated economic determinism in trying to understand events in other societies and the motivations of their leaders. Despite growing economic difficulties, the Castro brothers are unwilling to change their policies and provide meaningful concessions to the U.S.

Jaime Suchlicki is Professor and Director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami. He is the author of Cuba: From Columbus to Castro, now in its fifth edition; Mexico: From Montezuma to NAFTA, now in its second edition and the recently published Breve Historia de Cuba. Prof. Suchlicki is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.