The liberal case for lightening up on the Castros

Earlier today, I contended that President Obama’s decision to begin a diplomatic and economic relationship with Cuba was an ideologically-based move intended, we should presume, to do precisely what it will accomplish — assist the dictatorship. There is, however, a case for changing our Cuba policy that isn’t founded on hard leftism. I don’t find the case persuasive, but thought it would be helpful to acknowledge and discuss it.

I did so in a 2009 column for the Washington Examiner, the relevant parts of which I now set forth (the whole thing is here):

Momentum is growing in Washington for removing the ban on most travel to Cuba and for lifting or lightening other economic sanctions. This is a subject about which reasonable people can disagree. Unfortunately, there appears to be little room for disagreement within the Senate Democratic caucus.

Let’s start with the merits. U.S. sanctions were originally intended to bring down Castro’s revolutionary regime or, alternatively, to marginalize it.

Sanctions failed on the first score, but succeeded on the second. In less than 20 years, Cuba was transformed, even in the left-liberal imagination, from a romantic cutting-edge society to an impoverished backwater. And Castro was never able to “export” his revolution.

This was due primarily to the underlying weakness of Castro’s model, but sanctions probably made a contribution too. Once Cuba was marginalized, however, the case for maintaining the sanctions came to rest on their ability to help actually change Cuba.

In this, sanctions have not succeeded, and there begins the case for lifting or lightening them. Taking the analysis one step further, liberal Democrats contend that Cuban “engagement” with American tourists and American businesses will make the country a more open one and increase internal pressure for reform.

The problem with this approach is that, like sanctions, it has been tried and found wanting. As Sen. Robert Menendez, D-NJ, points out, millions of Europeans, Canadians, Mexicans, and South Americans have visited Cuba, while their nation’s businesses and governments have invested in the Cuban economy and entered into trade agreements. Yet the regime has not opened up.

Unfortunately, the tyrants who control Cuba have the desire and the means to maintain their control. Neither the infliction of more economic pain on the population through sanctions nor the further lining of the tyrants’ pockets through “engagement” will change this.

Maintaining the sanctions nonetheless increases the likelihood of a democratic Cuba. The next generation of Cuban leaders may be less dead set against loosening the government’s hold on society than the old-time totalitarians. If sanctions remain in place, the prospect that they might be lifted provides the new leaders with an incentive to reform. If sanctions have already been removed or substantially reduced, that particular incentive no longer exists. . . .

None of this likely matters to Obama. He has never shown a sincere interest in altering the nature of the Cuban regime or, for that matter, in seeing meaningful regime change in countries even more hostile to the U.S., such as Iran.

In any case, for the reasons presented in my column, extending a diplomatic and economic hand to Cuba will not help liberalize that country, and is likely, instead, to delay liberalization.

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