May 27, 2009 | Commentary on Latin America, Democracy and Human Rights

Cuba Must Fully Restore Political and Economic Freedoms

Even before his inauguration, President Barack Obama promised to improve relations with Cuba. He has since taken steps to let Cuban-Americans travel freely to the island and send more remittances. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has authorized talks with Cuban officials and opened the door for Cuba's possible return to the Organization of American States.

Yet many in Congress, the academic and business communities want to go further, faster. They've called on Obama to lift the ban on travel by all American citizens and end trade restrictions altogether.

Officials of the administration are wary of yielding to this pressure. Why? Two reasons. For one, no president, as leader of the Free World, wants to embrace the Cuba of the Castros without some tangible proof that the 50-year, anti-American dictatorship is loosening its repression of the Cuban people.

Obama has made future steps contingent on something positive occurring in Cuba: release of political prisoners, freedom of travel or freedom of speech - signs of an opening toward democratic change.

The Castro regime's human rights record is bad. With 200 prisoners of conscience and regular police surveillance and repression, the Castro system routinely denies freedom of speech, association, information and travel.

The very grass-roots foundations of freedom - civil society, trade unions and individual enterprise - are routinely squashed by the juggernaut of the Cuban state. The communist regime deadens the lives of millions of Cubans, leaving them apathetic, isolated and devoid of hope.

Second, no president would feel comfortable taking steps that would help fill the coffers of Castro Brothers Inc.

Cuba's regressive government controls 90 percent of all economic activity. It writes every contract and enforces labor discipline. It directs the judicial and bureaucratic machinery and doles out wages and profits as it chooses. The cupola of the communist regime, not the people or the market, calls every shot and reaps the lion's share of benefits.

The 1962 embargo has been substantially modified over time. The U.S. now sells hundreds of millions of dollars worth of food on a cash-and-carry basis. Remittances from the United States add hundreds of millions more and are certain to grow. Lifting of restrictions on telecommunications will allow freer communications, if the Cubans so desire.

Two million foreign tourists bask annually in Cuba's sun while the majority of Cubans subsist on less than $20 a month. The United States doesn't impede Cuba's ability to barter, borrow or trade with the rest of the world. Venezuela's anti-American president Hugo Chavez props up the Castro regime with an estimated $2 billion annually. Nevertheless, Fidel Castro calls U.S. policy "genocidal." More than a billion dollars in trade and remittances has thus far bought a goose egg's worth of liberalization and human rights changes. Would additional billions accomplish anymore without a profound structural, democratic transition in Cuba? In 2009, the partial embargo serves two purposes. It's still a leveraging point for bargained change in U.S.-Cuba relations. Second, it represents the moral divide between liberty and repression, between dictatorship and democracy.

Contemporary realists argue that in a world of radically diverse sovereign states such political distinctions are irrelevant, but most Americans aren't buying this.

So far, the Cuban leadership has been unresponsive to Obama's overtures. Cuba continues to insist it's the victim rather than the aggressor. Only a unilateral removal of all U.S. restrictions will impress Havana's aged hardliners.

For Fidel Castro, venomous as ever, serious dialogue on human rights and democracy is tantamount to the U.S. accepting "the whip and yoke" of slavery. The same old mindset, the familiar intransigence threatens to stymie hopes for improved relations.

The Cuba embargo is like a wall, starkly demarcating two opposed ways of thinking. It should have fallen in 1989 or in the 1990s as the rest of Latin America and much of the world moved to democracy.

It can still quickly disappear once a dissenter like Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet walks out of prison, when blogger Yoani Sanchez is free to write and travel without hindrance, and when a humble Afro-Cuban cane-cutter like Jorge Luis Garcia Perez Antunez is able to speak his mind without fear of retribution and imprisonment.

In the end, Cuba's hope for change centers on Havana, not Washington.

Ray Walser, Ph.D., is Senior Policy Analyst for Latin America in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at Heritage.

About the Author

Ray Walser, Ph.D. Senior Policy Analyst
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

First appeared in the McClatchy Washington Bureau