Stop me if you’ve heard this before: “The U.S. embargo against Cuba is the single biggest reason that Washington and Havana do not enjoy better relations. If we want the island nation to become a democracy, we should drop sanctions and pursue a policy of aggressive engagement.”
It is a simple and seductive argument, which explains why so many people have embraced it. Unfortunately, it is based on a fallacious reading of history and a naïve understanding of the Cuban dictatorship.
Over the past four decades, every American president who has pursued a serious rapprochement with Havana — Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama — has been left shaking his head in frustration. Whenever the United States has extended an olive branch, the Castro regime has responded with an act of foreign aggression (such as lending military support to Communist forces in Africa or killing four Cuban-American pilots) or domestic repression (such as jailing a U.S. citizen on bogus espionage charges) so provocative that it effectively ruined any chance of détente.
President Obama’s experience is instructive. In April 2009, he relaxed U.S. sanctions on travel and remittances to Cuba. Then, a few days later, in his speech at the opening ceremony of the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, he emphasized his sincere determination to improve bilateral ties. “The United States seeks a new beginning with Cuba,” Obama said. “I’m prepared to have my administration engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues — from drugs, migration, and economic issues, to human rights, free speech, and democratic reform. Now, let me be clear, I’m not interested in talking just for the sake of talking. But I do believe that we can move U.S.-Cuban relations in a new direction.”
The Castro brothers had other plans. In December of that same year, Alan Gross, a USAID contractor working in Cuba, was arrested and charged with spying. His real “crime” was helping the island’s tiny Jewish population obtain Internet access. Last year, Gross received a 15-year prison sentence. He remains in jail today, despite an aggressive U.S. campaign to secure his release. According to his lawyer, the 63-year-old Gross now “has difficulty walking and has developed a mass behind his right shoulder blade.” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland has said that he “is no longer able to walk in his cell.” (This past weekend, the Cuban government finally handed over his medical records.)
Gross has essentially become a hostage — a human bargaining chip that Raúl Castro & Co. can use to extract concessions from Washington. Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who has tried to broker Gross’s release, claims that Havana would be willing to exchange him for several Cuban intelligence agents currently imprisoned in the United States. Yet it is unclear whether the Castro regime would actually endorse such a prisoner swap. Moreover, from a U.S. perspective, trading multiple foreign agents who were conducting illegal espionage on behalf of an anti-American dictatorship, in return for a single U.S. humanitarian worker who was unjustly and outrageously detained, would set a terrible precedent.