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.
If the true Cuban democrats — those working tirelessly and in constant danger of arrest — do not think the deal Obama made is good, one has to consider their assessment. Take the column by Cuba’s most well-known critic, the independent journalist and democracy advocate Yoani Sanchez. A supporter of lifting the embargo, Sanchez writes that Obama made his concessions before the Cuban government agreed to take any of the demands he cited as necessary first steps by the regime. “What we have yet to hear,” she writes, “is a public timeline that commits the Cuban government to a series of gestures in support of democratization and respect for differences.” She proceeds to list the basic demands of the democracy movement, including an end to all political repression, the freeing of all political prisoners, and the allowance of civil society to build its own institutions. Realizing that these steps begin the dismantling of totalitarianism, she concludes with these strong words:
As long as steps of this magnitude are not taken, many of us will continue to believe that the day we have longed for is still far off. So, we will keep the flags tucked away, keep the corks in the bottles, and continue to press for the final coming of D-Day.
We must also note that the stalwart leaders of the American far Left are quite happy with Obama’s tepid steps, because in their eyes Castro and his regime have won a major victory. This analysis comes from the pen of Tom Hayden, once the young eminence grise of the early American New Left, and now, as he refers to himself, another old guy. Hayden is the man about whom Irving Howe said “Tom Hayden gives opportunism a bad name,” and who returned to Vietnam after 32 years in 2007, only to find it was no longer the socialist revolutionary “rice-roots democracy” he loved so much in his visits in the ’60s. Vietnam had betrayed him by going capitalist. Instead of revolution promoted on every block, one had the same chains as here, ritzy hotels and restaurants, and a public wanting to get rich. He writes:
The most ubiquitous bearded one this Christmas season was Santa Claus, [not Ho Chi Minh] beckoning shoppers from department store doorways, seen incongruously riding motorbikes, waving to little children. Spectacular strings of red and green lights were draped over the streets and stores, blinking at thousands of Vietnamese rolling along on bicycles and motorbikes, parting smoothly like schools of fish around pedestrians crossing the street. Restaurant-goers applauded Christmas carols sung by young Vietnamese women strapped in Heineken Girls sashes. None of this was about Jesus–Christmas is not a tradition in this Buddhist and secular-Marxist country–but all about corporate branding.
As he looks in the store windows, he sees Lego displays, Calvin Klein clothes, and the like. It looks much like what he despises about the United States. This is not what he fought for. And Tom Hayden believes Raul Castro and his next-in-line Communist leaders are not going to make the same mistake about Cuba. He cannot understand how and why the Vietnamese Communists, whom he so dearly loved, allowed this “consumer wonderland” to develop. It could not be what they were fighting for when he rallied to their support in the U.S., with chants like “Ho,Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is Going to Win.” Instead, he finds that Marxism and nationalism won the war, but capitalism and nationalism won the peace. Vietnam, he concludes, is “now in the camp of corporate neoliberalism.”
And so he was relieved to hear that Raul Castro has said Communist Cuba will remain a citadel of Marxism, and escape the sad fate that befell Vietnam. Hayden explains that the normalization of relations “is a huge success for the Cuban Revolution”:
The hostile US policy, euphemistically known as “regime change,” has been thwarted. The Cuban Communist Party is confidently in power. The Castros have navigated through all the challenges of the years. In Latin America and the United Nations, Cuba is accepted, and the United States is isolated.
As for the Cuban Five’s release, Hayden sees their being released from prison as a highly significant victory:
When few thought it possible, Cuba has achieved the return of all five prisoners held for spying on right-wing Cubans who trained at Florida bases and flew harassment missions through Cuban air space. The last three to be released served hard time in American prisons, and are being welcomed as triumphant heroes on the streets of Havana. Three of the Cuban Five served in Angola as well.
Note how he refers to the “hard time” they served. None of them came out of prison losing his teeth, losing over 100 pounds, and never having a hot meal his entire five years in a Cuban jail, as did Alan Gross. Cuban political prisoners, tortured as a matter of course in Castro’s jails, know very well what real hard time is. Hayden, too, it seems, sees the five spies convicted by a jury in an American trial as heroes. But as for Gross, Hayden calls him “a de facto spy of a certain type,” clearly in his judgement enough of a claim to find him guilty. After all, he sought to give the small Jewish community internet access, clearly a crime of immense proportions. And yet in essence the Americans were also forced to see that the Cuban Five — actual spies — were “political prisoners and not terrorist threats.” And as for the embargo, no need to wait for Congress to repeal it. As Hayden (and obviously the Cuban regime) views it, “the embargo is being dissolved.” He waits happily for the Obama family to be seen “on the streets of Havana.”
We’re going to be like China or Vietnam, a socialist country with capitalism. It’s going to be hard, but it’s necessary for the revolution.
If Ms. Hernandez is eventually right, Tom Hayden might find himself returning to Cuba in a decade, complaining that this was not the Cuba he fought on behalf of for so many years. We must pause to ponder whether this is the model that she and others in the Raul Castro regime have in mind for the future. The apparatchiks of the party and the government will still be in control, there will be little real press freedom and no multi-party democratic political system, but the people’s dreams will turn to personal economic betterment and away from politics. The true believers like Hayden will live to be disappointed once again, and if things go Castro’s way, the regime can put off real change and democratization not merely for a few decades, but perhaps for another half a century.