U.S. must continue its engagement with Cuba

A little over a year back, the United States re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba and eased the trade and travel restrictions that had been in place for decades. Educational travel is now permitted, and this has resulted in a travel boom as U.S. visitors have descended upon the island in large numbers (the standards for what constitutes “educational” being somewhat lax). Gone are the days of charters from Miami. All the major US carriers have convenient daily flights to Havana. American accents are to be found everywhere in Havana, but particularly in the watering holes associated with Hemingway.

There is less evidence of U.S. business presence there — although I did recently drive past a Sheraton run hotel in the exclusive Miramar district. I also heard about a U.S. tractor manufacturer starting to produce in Cuba, and about several companies that have been testing the waters. Their caution is understandable. The U.S. embargo remains in place making many companies hesitant about doing business in Cuba lest they run afoul of complex regulations. Until the embargo is lifted, not many companies outside of a select few sectors are likely to enter Cuba (even for permitted activities). Although many people across the political spectrum have been voicing support for an end to the embargo, it does not look as though this will happen anytime soon.

The election of President Trump has injected considerable uncertainty into U.S.-Cuba relations. Many of his supporters have been urging the president to reverse the changes ushered in by the Obama administration and news reports suggest an announcement may be imminent. I believe such a step would be unfortunate.

One does not have to subscribe to the belief that U.S. engagement is likely to bring about freedom and democracy in Cuba. Neither should we delude ourselves about the fact that almost all business in Cuba involves dealing with the government and so ends up contributing to the perpetuation of a political system that is sometimes oppressive. The embargo should be lifted because it does not serve U.S. interests to inflict pain on the people of Cuba when this accomplishes no meaningful strategic goal.

That it accomplishes nothing should be evident from 50-plus years of futility of this policy. Cuban identity is defined by the country’s enduring resistance to the U.S., and while some may hope that the passing of Fidel from the scene will make the job of toppling the regime easier, I remain skeptical for three reasons.

First, although the economy is in bad shape (especially following the collapse in Venezuela), the Cubans I met expressed pride in their “social achievements” (such as universal education, health care, housing, etc.) and do not see the revolution as an unmitigated failure. It is a point of some pride for them that, even though Cuba is a much poorer country, the average life expectancy in Cuba is about the same as it is in the US.

Second, as a small island nation, Cuba is easily policed and has a very effective intelligence service. This is bad for dissent, but on the other hand violent crime, illicit drugs, etc. are relatively rare, adding to the quality of life.

The third reason is the economic reform process that has been underway since Raul Castro took over from Fidel about 10 years back. Although the embargo did have a negative effect, most of the damage to the Cuban economy was self-inflicted. A series of reforms (most notably the guidelines approved by the Party Congress in 2011 after an extensive national dialogue) have set about repairing the damage, and there are signs that the economy is improving. As timid, plodding and distortionary as the reforms have been, they have shown Cubans a way forward to greater prosperity. And though reforms are creating tensions stemming from rising inequality, price inflation and wage distortions, people seem willing to put up with this — at least for now.

None of this is to deny that the U.S. has immense leverage with the embargo (even without reversing Obama-era policies). And Cuba has embarked upon a less ideological and more pragmatic phase of its history. This remains a moment of opportunity and it makes little sense to turn back the clock now. We use our leverage ineffectively when we try to bring about changes in Cuba’s system of government.

Yes, we should continue to press for more in terms of rights and freedoms for the Cuban people, for a just settlement of property claims of exiles, etc. But we should leave the choice of the political and economic system to the Cuban people. This will serve our interests in Cuba and the rest of Latin America better and may even help usher in greater freedom and democracy in Cuba. These goals become more easily achievable when they are de-coupled from the insistence that Cuba yield to U.S. demands.

Kislaya Prasad (kislaya_prasad@rhsmith.umd.edu) is the executive director of the Center for International Business Education and Research at the University of Maryland and leads an annual faculty development program in Cuba.

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