President Barack Obama’s sudden and drastic change in U.S. policy towards Cuba has produced approval and disapproval from leaders in both political parties. The divide between Rand Paul and Marco Rubio — both possible competitors for the Republican presidential nomination — is one example. On the Democratic side, the fiercest critic is Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and a key defender is the current front-runner for the nomination of her party, Hillary Clinton.
Among conservative pundits, the most eloquent defense of the new policy was written by Peggy Noonan, who, in her Wall Street Journal column, argues that Obama’s steps towards normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba were done in the belief that “breaking the status quo” might yield rewards.” She disagrees with Rubio that Obama’s actions give the Castro regime “legitimacy.” As Noonan sees it, everyone knows Cuba’s system is bankrupt and that the small island is a totalitarian state. But, her argument goes, Castro is already a “defeated foe,” and the Castro brothers’ desire for normalization is an admission on their part that “they’ve run out their string.” Acknowledging that they have in no way given up their stodgy ideology, she, like others, believe that once American tourists flood the country, American businesses set up shop, and our technology, business acumen and our money play their part, it “will likely in time have a freeing effect.”
The case she presents is essentially made by all other supporters of the Obama action. The Cold War is over, they proclaim, the Soviet Union no longer exists and therefore Cuba is no longer a threat. Besides, it has been decades since they have used their armed forces and security apparatus to try to foment revolution elsewhere in our hemisphere as well as in Africa. A lot of these arguments are fallacious. Cuba has aligned itself with Iran, North Korea, and China, as well as with groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. They have recently agreed with Vladimir Putin to allow the Russians to reopen the old Soviet spy base on the island, and they were caught only a few weeks ago trying to smuggle weapons into North Korea by ship.
Noonan writes that increased engagement will make the Cuban government be on its best behavior, not wanting to be embarrassed by oppressing its people as they are now. Moreover, once Cuban army officers find out what salaries people make at the Hilton and other new hotels, they will quickly run from the service and seek jobs in the tourist sector. All very nice, but Noonan seems not to realize that the salaries paid by foreign hotels are paid to the state, and the Cuban regime gives the tourist industry workers a small amount of the salary. Nor does she realize that most of the new hotels and businesses to come to Cuba are also owned by the state, and no foreign chain currently there, like the Spanish Melia Hotels, is allowed to have a majority interest in the properties they built.
Walter Russell Mead points out that what the Castros want now is simply “more Yanqui tourist dollars and a carefully hedged and limited uptick in trade [that] will help stave off the worst” for at least a few years. They seek to buy some time, and not to allow any thorough or meaningful democratization.
They certainly do not want any reform, or to permit democracy advocates to organize, speak, and write freely. That is why the regime’s state security murdered Oswaldo Paya – the organizer of the Varela Project, a petition of thousands demanding free elections — because they obviously feared he was making too much headway.