Havana

A scene from central Havana. Do ordinary Cubans stand to gain from an end to the embargo?

The past 50 years of U.S.-Cuban relations have been defined by Fidel Castro’s resistance to normalization. Bill Clinton was probably right when he said that Castro did not want an end to the embargo “because as long as he can blame the United States, then he doesn’t have to answer to his own people for the failures of his economic policy.”

Why else would Castro orchestrate the Mariel boatlift to humiliate the U.S. — sending 125,000 emigrants to the U.S., including criminals and the mentally ill — at a time when Jimmy Carter was taking steps to normalize relations? Why else would Castro call Obama “stupid” and suggest Cuba will change without U.S. involvement in response to the former president’s reasonable demand that Cuba reciprocate the U.S.’s gesture for a new beginning in Cuban relations?

Castro is given great homage and reverence in the Cuban consciousness for this very resistance to the U.S. I was able to witness these Cuban attitudes on a recent trip to Havana. It had not yet been three months since Castro’s death, and it was the first Congreso Internacional Pedagogia 2017 since his passing.

In the first session I attended, the presenter lamented the recent death of Castro and commented upon the need to rethink the implications of that event on U.S.-Cuban relations.

My visit there was made possible by an executive order signed by then-President Obama in 2016 loosening restrictions on travel to Cuba. Quite naturally it led to some reflections on U.S.-Cuba policy. Obama’s actions were part of a strategy — and the result of secret negotiations in 2016 between the U.S., Raul Castro, and the mediation of Pope Francis — to begin the process of normalizing relations with Cuba and ending the embargo.

Of course, though the president alone can take steps toward normalizing relations, the embargo itself can only be lifted through congressional legislation. Other executive actions toward normalizing relations included Obama’s recent decision to end the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which gave Cubans who made it onto U.S. soil a fast track to citizenship — a policy that Cuba wanted rescinded because it has over decades led to an exodus of Cubans to the U.S., leading to a “brain drain” in Cuba.

Americans have thought deeply about the merits of the Cuban embargo. (No less than 23 arguments pro and con are compiled at cuba-embargo.procon.org.) However, most of these arguments were formulated during an era in which Fidel Castro had the reins of power.

The embargo was passed during the Kennedy administration 53 years ago. It was a tactical decision within the framework of a Cold War strategy meant to contain the spread of Soviet-style communism. There is grainy, black-and-white video of Kennedy signing the embargo act in a radically different world. Fifty-three years after its signing and 25 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Cuban embargo is still in place! The embargo may have made strategic sense during the Cold War, but in a post-Cold War environment, it serves no strategic purpose.

It might be argued that the embargo should be lifted only after Cuba guarantees durable market reforms. The answer to this is that Cuba is already in the process of implementing durable market reforms under Raul Castro, to whom Fidel Castro, because of illness, ceded the reins of power in 2008. After the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, which was providing billions in foreign aid to Cuba through COMECON, Cuba instituted market reforms to keep the Cuban economy from collapsing — the dollarization of its economy, allowance of self-employment and some foreign investment — but under Fidel Castro these reforms occurred in fits and starts and were eventually rolled back, recentralizing the economy toward the end of his tenure in the mid-2000s.

In contrast to Fidel Castro’s reluctance to institute permanent market reforms, Raul Castro’s market reforms are durable and decisive. With Raul Castro’s appointment of ministers committed to new market openings, journalist Marc Frank has called the new dynamic “a seismic shift in the political landscape.” Cuba, it would appear, will not be returning to the recentralization of their economy. Raul Castro, furthermore, has told Cubans that the era of “one-man rule” in Cuba is over and he will not seek the presidency in 2018.

Now is the moment for the U.S. to capitalize upon this singular opportunity to normalize relations and lift the embargo.

The most fascinating aspect of my trip was the opportunity to glean the attitudes of Cubans — through conversations and observations — to the inevitable metamorphosis of their society and culture. Cuba is changing, and Cubans know it. They are optimistic, anxious, and confident about the prospects of the embargo being lifted and the opening of their economy.

They are optimistic because they believe that an end to the embargo is inevitable. Indeed, they are well into the process of instituting durable market reforms. I asked a Cuban if he was able to see an improvement in the economic situation. He answered yes, mentioning long-awaited for infrastructure improvements in Havana, and the expansion of the Mariel port into a massive, state-of-the-art transshipment hub with an adjacent free-market zone.

On the other hand, Cubans also have a sense of anxiety about opening up their society and economy to the international market. Will the social fabric be transformed such as to engender greater economic inequalities? (After the fall of the Soviet Union, when market reforms were instituted, Cubans began to experience wider social inequalities.) Will a consumer culture substitute for a highly developed social conscience?

The specter of a new Cuba hangs over Cubans, but they face it with confidence. They are gradualists when it comes to market reforms. They have taken the lessons of post-Soviet Russia, which too quickly and too radically opened its markets without the know-how to operate them, paving the way for Putin’s rise. One Cuban I spoke with described himself as a “convinced socialist but anti-communist.” He prefers a mixed economy, with some sectors such as health and education remaining socialized, and others such as services and engineering becoming privatized and placed in a free market.

“We are going to do this gradually,” he said, “so as to avoid any fatal mistakes,” certainly an allusion to the post-Soviet Russian collapse.

What will this new Cuba look like? Nobody knows, but if we desire a mutually beneficial relationship with a Cuba that has open markets, we are certainly not incentivizing Cuba in that direction by keeping the embargo in place. While the embargo is law, both the U.S. and Cuba lose. In 2012 the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the embargo, quantified the loss in annual exports to be at $1.2 billion. The Cuban Policy Foundation, a nonprofit founded by former U.S. diplomats, estimates losses in agricultural exports to be even higher at $4.8 billion.

Write your congressional representatives and let them know that now is the time to lift the Cuban embargo. This would be the most effective catalyst for an open Cuba.

Gerald Cantu, Ph.D., teaches at both California State University, Bakersfield and Bakersfield College.