Any deal between the United States and Cuba ought to aim at maximizing economic freedom, handing the communist regime only the political benefits that are inevitable, and facilitating the growth of the still embryonic civil society on the island. Unfortunately, President Obama´s “normalization” of relations with Cuba will have only a tiny economic impact on the people and bring the Castro dictatorship political and financial benefits.
The substance of the agreement does not reside in its exchange of prisoners, of course. Cuba has released Alan Gross, the American contractor arrested for trying to set up satellite communications equipment, an unidentified U.S. spy, and 53 political prisoners. In return, Washington has released three Cuban spies, one of whom was directly involved in blowing up two small planes from “Brothers to the Rescue,” the humanitarian organization that used to assist Cuban rafters. But there were many such exchanges during the Cold War. They brought freedom to people who were cruelly imprisoned, but they did not entail anything significant for the millions of victims who suffered under totalitarian rule.
The substance of the new agreement is that the Cuban hierarchy is now recognized as part of the civilized community of states and will be granted access to foreign exchange at a time when the Venezuelan subsidy is in grave peril due to that country´s economic collapse. No political change is even insinuated in the accords; the Cuban people will at best pick up a few economic crumbs spilled on the floor by their masters.
The only way the Cuban people could truly benefit from an agreement would be if it were to inundate the island with U.S. investment and trade, none of which will happen because the federal embargo prohibits this. Only the U.S. Congress could lift it.
Given the somewhat flexible conditions of the embargo, the United States is already Cuba’s fifth biggest trading partner and its largest supplier of food and agricultural products. This limited economic exchange will not vary much and the tiny amount of private enterprise allowed in Cuba will continue to see some 300,000 very small businesses go about their daily routine. The new measures entail a small increase of U.S. dollars that flow to Cuba by way of travel and remittances. But because the Castro regime has complete control of Cuba’s currency, the foreign exchange will go directly into its pockets. Under the prevailing system, the ordinary people will obtain only Cuban pesos worth very little.
It gets worse. The official U.S. recognition of Cuba implies backing for its request for financial help from multilateral bodies. Venezuela, whose budget needs oil at $120 a barrel, is becoming an increasingly unreliable sugar daddy. China, which has extended credit to populist governments in Latin America, loans money only under strict conditions and is already signaling that its economic slowdown will force it to be picky. The deal with Washington therefore gives the Castro brothers much-needed sources of cash.
When judging a political development, one should never take one’s cues from a tyrant or demagogue’s propaganda. The fact that Raul Castro and his buddies, including Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro and Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner, are hailing the accords as a “great triumph” for the ailing Fidel Castro is irrelevant. What is relevant is the reaction of Castro´s victims, including the many dissidents and civic organizations that, under excruciating conditions, keep the flame of liberty alive and try to carve out a space for civil society on the island.
Yoani Sánchez, the iconic Cuban blogger and activist, spoke for most of them when she wrote: “Castro has won.” I hasten to point out that she is critical of the U.S. embargo and lives in Cuba — that is, she is not coming at this from the vantage point of the 1960s generation of exiles for whom the embargo is a quintessential symbol of the fight against the six-decade dictatorship.
Yes, I am afraid it looks like it is game, set, and match for Castro. For now.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute. His latest book is “Global Crossings: Immigration, Civilization and America.”