A Cuba Without Shackles

The United States’ strategy toward Cuba is the same it employed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Cuba is an enemy state; it supports terrorism, traffics in humans disguised as humanitarian programs that send reluctant doctors, nurses and workers overseas. Cuba is a friend of Iran, Syria, North Korea, Russia, and, of course, Venezuela.

By Jaime Suchlicki | August 13, 2014

Cuban Generals Abelardo Colome and Raul Castro

I would like to start by mentioning the United States’ macro-policies with Latin America. In the 70s, the U.S. radically changed its political strategy of maintaining stability in Latin America by supporting the region’s military. The long support for military dictatorships ended.

After the 70s, under Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford, the U.S. emphasized the importance of human rights, democracy and free elections in the region. These policies were aimed at Latin America and not to the rest of the world. Thus the United States intervened in countries such as Panama to restore democracy, and in Dominican Republic and Peru to pressure the military to prevent their involvement in politics.

We have witnessed in the past 30 to 40 years that the region has experienced a series of democratic systems, whether we like them or not, chosen by the people, open to information, and to democracy. This has since been the policy of the United States toward Latin America.

Based on this position, the U.S. looks at Cuba and maintains a policy consistent with that toward Latin America. If the U.S. were to unilaterally eliminate the embargo, it would be denying the policies practiced for the past 40 years in Latin America, accepting Cuba’s military dictatorship and, possibly, in other countries.

The United States’ strategy toward Cuba is the same it employed in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Cuba is an enemy state; it supports terrorism, traffics in humans disguised as humanitarian programs that send reluctant doctors, nurses and workers overseas. Cuba is a friend of Iran, Syria, North Korea, Russia, and, of course, Venezuela.

For the past 50 years, Cuba has opposed, and maintained subversive policies towards the United States. It allowed nuclear missiles on the island aimed at the U.S.

To assume that the United States will change its policies without first obtaining concessions from Cuba shows a lack of understanding of international relations. For the U.S. to change its Cuba policy, Cuba has to change too.

In the past 50 years there have been numerous talks between the U.S. and Cuba. The U.S. does want real change in Cuba but the regime of the Castro brothers opposes any major changes.

Cuba wants an immediate unilateral lifting of all U.S. restrictions, while the American government wants change, both political and economic. In other words, they have different interests. Cuba opposes any concessions that may lead to political change.

There have been numerous talks between the American and Cuban government over air piracy and immigration, in the United Nations, in the State Department and in Havana’s Interest Section, which show that this has nothing to do with lack of conversation or negotiations. The issue at hand is that the Cuban regime refuses to provide concrete and real concessions. But then again, no totalitarian government is willing to offer concessions that lead to their demise such as uncensored Internet access, open political processes, or free elections.

For example, in Chile General Pinochet was willing to carry out a popular referendum, which he lost and as a consequence opened the democratic process. General Raul Castro’s government is not willing to do so.

It is also important to mention that the embargo or blockade (as it is referred by the Cuban government) is not the cause of the island’s problems. Cuba’s economic hardships are the result of an inefficient system. Cuba’s economic failure is no different than the failures of the Eastern European economies [during the Warsaw Pact era] – lack of products, inefficiency, corruption, etc.

For over 50 years, Cuba has blamed the embargo for its lack of food and medicine. The blockade is not the problem. Cuba trades with the rest of the world, even buys food and other products from the U.S., except for medicines which are cheaper in Mexico and Canada. The U.S. has not isolated Cuba. Instead the island has isolated itself because of its lack of production and weak economy. The Cuban government can purchase anything it wants from the rest of the world, but it cannot do so because its failed economy does not produce.

In other words, the problems of the Cuban people are rooted in the regime’s inefficiency and not on the embargo. Cuba has promoted the fallacy that the embargo is the cause of all the problems and unfortunately many have accepted it.

What does the Cuban government want? Raul Castro’s government wants:

  1. The unilateral ending of all travel restrictions; and,
  2. Access to more credits to purchase products in the U.S. and in other countries.

Yet, Cuba has not repaid credits provided by Venezuela, France, Spain, and even the former Soviet Union, among other countries. Cuba is not willing to open the political process, allow uncensored Internet access, or change the political system in exchange for these concessions.

If there is a businessman interested in investing in Cuba, he would have to speak to Generals Abelardo Colome or Raul Castro and submissively say, “look, I am interested in investing here…I want to be your business partner…You can have 49% and 51% for me.” There are countries which have given into this in the past.

I do not think that many American venture capitalists would invest under such circumstances with no rule of law, lack of property rights, and high risk of property expropriation. To think that American investors are going to rush to Cuba is a mere illusion.

Cuba is not isolated; instead it has partnered all over the world with its allies Venezuela, China, Russia and Iran. The Castro brothers do not want the U.S. involved in Cuba’s internal affairs.

Let’s take a look at the efforts from outside of Cuba to promote real change. We have to begin by remembering during the Cold War, the U.S. promoted several activities in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union:

  1. Radio Free Europe;
  2. Smuggling information inside Russia, and Eastern Europe;
  3. Support for Poland’s Solidarity movement; and,
  4. Support for Poland’s Catholic Church.

In fact, I do not recall any Eastern European exile saying, “I want all restrictions lifted so I can invest in Poland,” or “I want to send more packages there,” or “I want more tourists to travel to Poland because they are going to change the system.”

To those who think American tourism is going to change Cuba, I propose to open a travel agency to send tourists to North Korea. No one thinks that tourists will make a difference there so why would they make a difference in Cuba?

There have been millions of tourists that have visited Cuba that speak Spanish that are familiar with Cuban culture, yet, they have not changed the system. Then, why think that an American from Iowa going to Cuba will have a magic wand and will make a difference? The Americans that travel to Cuba are interested in vacationing, drinking mojitos, and enjoying Cuba’s beaches and women. They are not interested in changing Cuban society.

I visited the Soviet Union while under communist rule and a guide showed me around and controlled my travel. Since I did not speak Russian, I did not talk to anyone nor made an impact.

Tourism does not have the power to change a society. In Cuba, travel brings dollars, some of which go to the State, others to State employees and finally much more to foreign companies. Only Cubans selected by the government to work in the tourist sector would benefit from U.S. tourism.

Another important topic that should be discussed and publicized is the exploitation of the Cuban worker by the State and by foreign companies. Cubans are modern day slaves of foreign investors and the Castro government. Foreign companies pay the Cuban government in hard currency and the government pays the workers in convertible pesos, keeping 90% of the foreign payments.

Why doesn’t the United Nations or the American government condemn this practice? Why don’t they point out that only fair skinned Cubans are hired by foreign companies? Or that white not black Cubans receive most of the Cuban-American remittances? Or, where are the programs that are supposed to help black Cubans?

In other words, all efforts abroad seem to be misguided. We shouldn’t petition the American government to soften the embargo, instead we should use our resources to help Cubans inside the island, to help the civil society, penetrate the political systems and provide information. This is more important than to request Washington to lift the travel restrictions.

I find it ironic that some Cuban-American entrepreneurs that have made money in the U.S., and benefited from a free society, rule of law and democracy, are embracing insignificant economic changes in Cuba in the hope that it will lead to a political change; even when it means engaging with the current system.

Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union collapsed in the 90s without anyone asking for economic change. During Reagan’s presidency, his cabinet and the people did not ask small economic changes in Russia or Eastern Europe. Instead, the U.S. government and people demanded freedom, real change, and the end of communist rule.

I know we have waited 56 years and we are tired. I am tired too. But we have to wait. The Russians waited 70 years for communism to collapse, Eastern Europe waited 45 years, and Jews waited 2000 years to finally have a sovereign, democratic state.

I do not think there is a need to become desperate and support minor changes. A succession process in Cuba will perpetuate a military dictatorship. This is what happened in the Soviet Union with the KGB controlling now the economy and politics.

We should not rush into making careless decisions. We need to have a vision of Cuba’s future that includes freedom and democracy; a vision where Cubans are not merely the ones selling cigars, souvenirs and rum to American or European tourists.

Cubans have to have control over their businesses and freely choose their government. It is the people that should choose their own representatives, in free elections, Cuba’s future political system. We must have a vision of a democratic Cuba. It does not matter if it takes 10 or 20 more years. I may not see it but my children will.

I do not want a Cuba under the shackles of the military with small, gradual changes; only hoping that one day the Cubans will be free.

This article was drawn from Professor Jaime Suchlicki’s presentation during the “Acciones y Opciones para el Empoderamiento de la Sociedad Civil en Cuba” Forum hosted by the Foro de Promoción Democrática Continental (FPDC) on June 28, 2014 at Florida International University’s College of Law.

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.