I’ve been taking in all of the Cuba takes over the past day. Yesterday’s historic shift was unambiguously good – this is clear to sane people. Vox has a good summary of the deal. Materially, the U.S. secured the release of USAID contractor Alan Gross and 53 political prisoners as well as concessions on internet access and new permissions for the United Nations and Red Cross in exchange for the release of three Cuban spies, the ease of certain business, travel, and banking restrictions, and higher allowances for remittances from Cuban-Americans to their families back home. Oh, and travelers will be able to import up to $100 dollars’ worth of Cuban cigars into the U.S.
The fate of the embargo remains up in the air as does the possibility of a Cuban embassy – Congress will need to take action on both. It seems obvious, though, that the embargo’s days are numbered. And its end can’t come soon enough, whether or not opening our doors to Cuba actually undermines the regime significantly. As Daniel Drezner writes in The Washington Post, there’s good reason to believe it won’t:
Let’s be clear about this. Generally speaking, neither negative economic statecraft (sanctions) nor positive economic statecraft (inducements) works terribly well at changing the nature of a hostile regime. And Cuba is still a hostile regime. Raul Castro embraced the opening Wednesday while still “acknowledging our profound differences, particularly on issues related to national sovereignty, democracy, human rights and foreign policy.” So there are still pretty elevated expectations of future conflict between Washington and Havana.
Interestingly, Drezner also points to a 2012 paper in the American Political Science Review that suggests that remittances of the kind Obama’s action will bolster can actually strengthen totalitarian regimes by providing an influx of income that allows repressive governments to spend existing resources in ways that further empower them. If families can get money from abroad, the logic goes, regimes spend less money on providing them the services and resources that placated them and spend more money on, say, militaries.
This is actually precisely the kind of logic embargo defenders should heed. Cutting off resources to an oppressed population could make them more dependent on a regime rather than less. Who else will they turn to for aid? It is, I imagine, considerably easier to try to procure food and services from your oppressors than it is to procure the same by trying to overthrow them. As Cuba Research Center President Philip Peters wrote in The American Conservative earlier this week, to assume the opposite is to assume, in the case of Cuba, that the Cuban people remain perpetually “one spark short of a political uprising,” They are not. The Cuban people have suffered through the embargo for half a century. They suffered through the fall of the Soviet Union, their primary economic partner – a calamity so devastating to the Cuban economy that the average Cuban lost twenty pounds in the immediate aftermath. Neither produced regime change. It seems that the greatest chance for slow, long-term change will be provided by the same kinds of policy changes that will provide immediate relief to the Cuban people in the short term – the kinds of changes Obama has implemented. Although remittances seem to enable regimes to spend resources on things that keep them in power, different regimes are secured by different things. And the reforms Raul Castro has put in place over the past few years evince a belief that economic reforms – not jackboots – are the key to holding on. Peters in The American Conservative:
Ten years ago, Cuban citizens could not travel abroad without a government exit permit. Cell phones were available to officials, foreign businessmen, and tourists, but not average Cubans. Hotels and resorts were reserved for foreigners only. Computers were not for sale, only components. Cubans could only sell cars of 1959 or earlier vintage. Home sales were illegal even though 85 percent of Cuban families hold title to their homes. And an unannounced policy capped the number of licenses to engage in private business at about 150,000.
All those prohibitions are gone today.
Cubans are traveling wherever they can get a visa, and the United States granted 19,500 visitor visas in the first half of this year. Cuban dissidents now visit Washington, Miami, and European capitals regularly—then they return home and travel again. Private brokers and online listing services are sorting out supply and demand in a new residential real estate market. Internet connectivity remains limited and expensive, but it is improving and 1.9 million Cubans—more than one-fifth of the adult population—now have cell phones, some now with access to e-mail.
Will economic changes be undermined or pushed along by new remittances? I think a case can be made for the latter given that the new allowances are coupled with expanded access to Cuba for American entrepreneurs – Cuba will see both new money and new demands on what that money should be able to do – demands that will be made by new people in an undermining of the strength of Cuba’s public sector that Peters says is already underway:
New economic policies have led to an explosion of small enterprise, where nearly half a million Cubans—triple the number of four years ago—are working in service businesses of all kinds. Larger private businesses, legally organized as cooperatives, are emerging; some of the 600 in operation are state enterprises that have been turned over to their workers, while others are start-ups that began with citizen applications. Market-based agriculture has expanded with land grants to 170,000 private farmers and cooperatives, and the agriculture bureaucracy is being pared back gradually. The government has trimmed its payroll by 650,000 workers, and ultimately expects 45 percent of the workforce to be occupied in the private sector. A new foreign investment law was approved last March, and the courtship of potential investors is under way.
Prospects for economic progress aside, Cuba’s human rights abuses remain well worth examining and criticizing. From Matthew Yglesias’ summary at Vox:
According to Freedom House, Cuba has the most restrictive press censorship in the Western Hemisphere and is the only country rated “not free” in the Americas. All official media is owned by the state and controlled by the government. Dissident bloggers are regularly arrested. According to Amnesty International, protestors are regularly arrested and detained without trial. The Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba says there were over 6,000 arbitrary detentions of human rights activists in 2013.
Once in jail, detainees face harsh conditions. “Prisoners often slept on concrete bunks without a mattress,” according to the State Department’s human rights report on Cuba, “with some reports of more than one person sharing a narrow bunk. Where available, mattresses were thin and often infested with vermin and insects.”
As for Cuba’s dubious role in international terrorism, The Hill has a rundown of the State Department’s gripes:
“In the case of Cuba, State listed three primary reasons for keeping the island nation on the list. First, it noted that Cuba continued to provide a safe haven for about two dozens members of Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA), a group charged with terrorism in Spain.
State’s report, though, seemed to give Cuba some credit for hosting peace talks between the government of Colombia and members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The report notes that Cuba offered aid to FARC members “in past years,” and indicates that Havana is no longer supporting the rebel group.
A second major reason for listing Cuba was that the government “continued to harbor fugitives wanted in the United States.” That language is unchanged from last year’s report.
And thirdly, State said Cuba has deficiencies in the area of anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism, just as it did in last year’s report. This year, however, State also noted that Cuba has become a member of the Financial Action Task Force of South America, which requires Havana to adopt anti-money laundering recommendations.
…A Washington lawyer with expertise in Cuba and international law, Robert Muse, told The Hill that none of the three reasons listed by State are enough to satisfy the legal requirements that must be met to list a country as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Muse said arguments about harboring U.S. fugitives are especially weak, since U.S. law says designations must be made against countries that “repeatedly provided support for international terrorism.”
Whether Cuba can credibly be considered a sponsor of terrorism or not and despite its clear abuses, we should, I think, find ourselves at least uneasy with the idea of pursuing political objectives by inflicting suffering on innocent people who likely share those objectives. “The embargo was originally conceived in a 1960 State Department memorandum,” Peters writes, “as a way to deny ‘money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government.'” Hunger and desperation. As official U.S. policy. This is what sanctions are designed to do – in Cuba, in Iran, and elsewhere. Sometimes they work. Sometimes. But vicious and destructive circular logic gets employed when they don’t. Daniel Larison in The American Conservative yesterday:
“There is almost no other kind of policy that thrives off of failure more than sanctions and embargoes. If the regime’s behavior doesn’t change, that is taken as proof that the economic pressure is insufficient and must be increased. If the regime is open to a negotiated settlement of outstanding issues, that is also treated as an invitation to impose more sanctions to “keep up the pressure.” Economic sanctions can never be lifted for fear of “rewarding” the government that the U.S. tried to punish, and so they remain in place for as long the other government endures.”
The biggest fans of this circular logic in the case of Cuba are the stooges of the Cuba lobby. Prominent among them are two GOP 2016 hopefuls – Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Both have been vocal and absurd in their criticisms of everything that’s happened over the past day. The benefits to them of defending the stats quo politically aren’t immediately obvious. The Cuba lobby, after all, isn’t that powerful in the grand scheme of things. And a recent Atlantic Council survey indicates incredibly broad support for normalization. 56% of Americans, 63% of Floridians, 52% of Republicans, and 60% of Independents support it. The only constituency Cruz and Rubio could conceivably be appealing to is the contingent of Republican primary voters broadly contemptuous of Obama’s foreign policy. Cuba, in and of itself, doesn’t matter to them. This is the “Lead From Behind”/”Blame America First” crowd.
Finally, Noah Feldman has a decent analysis of the broader political takeaway from all this in Bloomberg View: There is power in small but dedicated political constituencies like the Cuba lobby. But Obama seems to be demonstrating an increased willingness to take them on.
What Obama must be hoping is that groups with a passing interest in the opening to Cuba will get on the bandwagon just long enough to counterbalance the power of the lobby and get the necessary legislation passed. Big ag will still have a diffuse interest, not a concentrated one — but perhaps the vision of money on the table in the near future will motivate sufficient support.
The risk that Obama carries in taking on a concentrated lobby isn’t totally unfamiliar to him. After all, he tried to take on the NRA by pushing gun control after the Newtown shootings. When he lost, the political cost to him was much less than the cost of doing nothing. With regard to Israel, Obama has tread much more carefully, limiting himself to the unmistakable message that he thinks West Bank settlements are an obstacle to peace and that Benjamin Netanyahu is, too. Many pro-Israel lobbying groups detest him for it, but they haven’t yet had the occasion to go to war against him.
With the end of his presidency in view, Obama has to take risks if he wants to score some legacy points. His gamble on Cuba may not be fully realized. But the results will have implications for the structure of American interest group politics more broadly.