Candidate Barack Obama said that, as president, he would talk to anti-American dictators without precondition. He didn’t mention that he would also give them historic policy concessions without precondition.
His surprise unilateral change in the U.S. posture toward the Castro dictatorship came without even the pretense of serious promises by the Cubans to reform their kleptocratic, totalitarian rule.
The trade of Alan Gross, the American aid worker jailed in Cuba for the offense of trying to help Jewish Cubans get on the Internet, for three Cuban spies is understandable (we also got back one of our spies, and Cuba released several dozen political prisoners as a sweetener).
The rest of Obama’s sweeping revisions — diplomatic relations and the loosening of every economic sanction he can plausibly change on his own — are freely granted, no questions asked. It is quid with no pro quo.
After waiting out 10 other U.S. presidents, the Castro regime finally hit the jackpot in Obama, whose beliefs about our Cuba policy probably don’t differ much from those of the average black-turtleneck-clad graduate student in Latin American studies.
Every dictator around the world must be waiting anxiously for a call or a postcard from Obama. The leader of the free world comes bearing gifts and understanding. He is willing to overlook human-rights abuses. And his idea of burnishing his legacy is to clinch deals with his country’s enemies.
Who helped negotiate the one with Cuba? Harry Truman had Dean Acheson. Richard Nixon had Henry Kissinger. Barack Obama has Ben Rhodes, the deputy national-security adviser who has what it takes to collapse U.S. policy toward Cuba and get nothing in return.
There is no doubt that economic sanctions are a blunt and dubious instrument, and reasonable people can disagree about their wisdom (I’ve gone back and forth about the Cuban embargo through the years). But dictatorial regimes hate them for a reason. All things considered, they want more economic wherewithal rather than less.
Cuba is heavily dependent on the largesse of its ideological partner Venezuela, whose irrational, left-wing policies have helped trash its economy. Just as the Cuban dictatorship faces the dire prospect of the collapse of Venezuela’s support, here comes El Yanqui to cushion the blow. The Castro regime will take a cut of the increased trade, remittances and tourism that will spring from Obama’s concessions.
Consider tourism. The Cuban military has an enormous holding company called GAESA. One of its companies, Gaviota, operates an extensive network of hotels and resorts, according to the strategic consultancy Stratfor. Imagine if the Pentagon owned the Marriott and Hilton hotel chains. That is the Cuban tourism industry in a nutshell.
About a million Canadian tourists go to Cuba every year. In total, more than 2 million tourists visit annually, and yet the Castro regime is still standing.
It is true, of course, that the embargo — which Obama can’t lift on his own — hasn’t ended the Castro regime. On the other hand, there is little reason to believe that lifting the embargo will end it, either. Our vast trade with China hasn’t yet made Beijing any less repressive.
The Cuba embargo is condemned as a relic of the Cold War, but it is the regime itself that is a relic, an inhuman jackboot left over from the era when people actually professed to believe in workers’ paradises.
There are holdout believers, still. The Nation magazine is doing a trip to Cuba, perhaps because the journey to North Korea is too long. The liberal elite has often treated Fidel Castro as a cute, plucky figure of defiance, and even now, the government has determined apologists in the U.S. Congress.
If Cuba were a racist apartheid-style system rather than a communist dictatorship, no one would be so eager to do business with it. The great and good celebrate the Obama changes as the end of an era. But they will replenish the coffers of a Cold War regime that is stubbornly still standing.
Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.