Havana, Cuba—Roberto Alarcón, well-dressed but of unexceptional appearance, is thought to be the No. 3 man in Cuba, after only Fidel and Raúl Castro. He lazily sprawled in his chair before eight American journalists, fondling his cigar. Asked about Havana’s willingness to negotiate with the United States over its embargo against his country, Alarcón responded: there’s “no reason to consider negotiating a failing policy.”
And failing it is. For more than four decades the U.S. government has attempted to isolate Cuba’s communist regime. And for more than four decades that government has survived. Fidel Castro burst onto the international stage in 1959 by deposing the corrupt and unloved Fulgencio Batista. Cuba became the Soviet Union’s outpost in the Western hemisphere, in 1961 earning U.S. support for a botched invasion by Cuban émigrés and an economic embargo.
The latter undoubtedly bled the Cuban economy. But the Castro government survived, buoyed by abundant Soviet subsidies—evidenced today by ancient Lada automobiles on Cuban streets and generic Soviet refrigerators in Cuban homes.
A decade ago the USSR collapsed. American supporters of the embargo promised that Castro’s time had come.
For instance, in February 1992 Jorge Mas Canosa of the Cuban American National Foundation declared: “I strongly believe, given the information that is coming out of Cuba, that the economy is going to collapse by the summertime, and that Castro cannot do anything to stop this collapse.” Two years later Heritage Foundation analyst John P. Sweeney announced: “The 32-year-old trade embargo against Cuba may finally be producing its intended results of destabilizing the island’s communist government and weakening Fidel Castro’s control of the Cuban people. . . . [H]is final collapse may be closer than ever before.”
Alas, Castro is still in power. Indeed, officials in Havana believe that they have survived the worst. It is hard to credit the regime’s claim to have the highest growth rate in the region, but new hotels are being built, foreign cars are plying Havana’s streets, and dollar stores are hosting Cubans as they buy Western goods.
Support for the embargo persists, however. Its advocates now disclaim any expectation of bringing down the Castro government. Instead, they hope to limit Havana’s resources. Yet tens of thousands of Cuban-Americans visit Cuba annually and many more send an estimated $700 million in remittances to relatives in Cuba every year. In short, the Cuban-American community wants one rule for itself and a different rule for everyone else.
While the embargo may deny the Castro regime some dollars, it unfortunately provides Havana a convenient excuse. Elizardo Sanchez, head of the Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, complains that the “sanctions policy gives the government a good alibi to justify the failure of the totalitarian model in Cuba.” Ambassador Vicki Huddleston, head of the U.S. Interests Section (America’s quasi-embassy) in Havana, agrees: “Castro has found the embargo to be convenient to him,” since he “uses it very effectively all the time, making us the Goliath and Cuba the David.”
This is largely cant, of course. Although the embargo hurts, it is socialism that has ruined Cuba.
As Sanchez, who has spent more than eight years in Castro’s prisons, explains, the nation’s economic problems are due not to the embargo, but to “the impact of totalitarian measures” by a regime that is “repressive and inefficient.” Collectivism is why this entrepreneurial people is desperately poor, living in a world seemingly frozen in the 1950s—from which many cars date and since which many buildings have not been painted. The embargo is supported by no one else and has done less to isolate Cuba than, say, its welshing on its debts. What sanctions do, however, is limit the potentially destabilizing impact of American visitors and investors. Although American business is not in Cuba, American dollars are. In fact, the economy runs on dollars.
Around Havana’s tourist hotels, touts promote paladares, or private restaurants. Men and women sidle up to strolling foreigners offering purloined cigars. Pedicabs look for customers and beggars seek a soft touch.
Cubans can shop at stores where everything from food to stoves is priced in dollars. Cuba is socialist, with rationing of basic goods, but everything is available to those with enough dollars.
When asked about such blatant inequality, Alarcon responded that the situation is fairer than a decade ago, when it was illegal for anyone to hold dollars—though some did anyway. But the growing pervasiveness of the dollar, to which up to 60 percent of Cubans have some access, has created a widespread awareness that the Cuban economy combines poverty with inequality.
This might be helping to spark the spread of human-rights activists and independent journalists across the island. Argues a senior European diplomat based in Havana: we are “convinced that greater openness of trade and commerce with Cuba would enhance social and economic changes.”
American trade, investment, and travel might pose an even greater challenge to Castro’s government, perhaps the most significant yet. For this reason Sanchez advocates lifting sanctions.
Of course, he admits, in the short-term money brought to Cuba that ends up in Castro’s hands “will be used for repression.” Nevertheless, “it would be more fruitful over the long-term if people from democratic states came to Cuba.” The majority of dissidents share his opinion.
In fact, because of the destabilizing influence of outside influences, Sanchez suggests “that the Cuban government really doesn’t want the embargo to be lifted.” Alarcón dismisses the idea, joking about Castro and Senator Jesse Helms, sponsor of legislation tightening the embargo, conspiring together in a backroom. And Cuban economic officials speak positively of growing support from American farming and business interests for allowing more trade. Yet some U.S. officials privately share Sanchez’s view.
Communism has ended as a serious intellectual and geopolitical force. Even its practitioners seem dissatisfied. For instance, Alarcón, who could end up as Cuba’s future communist leader, terms unlikely “a return to the type of socialism represented by the Soviet Union.”
Still, he doesn’t offer the alternative of freedom, which is what the people of Cuba desperately need—and what America cannot impose.
Doug Bandow, a nationally syndicated columnist, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author and editor of several books.