What Egypt Tells Us About Cuba

raul castro

In the days after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, papers around the world filled their front pages and their home pages with the news.

But one paper, Granma, relegated the story to the fourth spot on its website, reserving top billing for an article on a large book fair.

Granma is the official newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party.

Granma’s article on Mubarak’s resignation, which did not appear until long after other papers had thoroughly covered every angle of the story, was brief. It related a tranquil account in which the president “transferred power to the army” and “moved with his family to the area of Sharm el-Sheikh, where he has a vacation house.”

Understandably, the overthrow of a ruler who held onto power for decades through a controlled press, rigged elections and secret police terror is an uncomfortable topic for the official paper of Cuba’s ruling party. After all, for the past 50 years Raúl Castro, president of the Cuban Council of State, and his brother Fidel have run their country through the use of a controlled press, elections that are not even worthy of the name, and, of course, secret police terror.

While the regimes in Cairo and Havana had much in common, the U.S. government’s attitude toward them could hardly have been more different. Egypt under Mubarak was a top strategic partner and ally. Both the corruption-riddled government and the military were showered with American aid. Meanwhile, the U.S. has maintained a near-total embargo against Cuba for almost half a century.

The embargo — known throughout Cuba and most of Latin America as “el bloqueo,” or “the blockade” — restricts both goods and personal travel. While American citizens in Miami were free to make the 6,500-mile jaunt to Mubarak’s Egypt to see the pyramids whenever they wanted, they are prohibited from making the 150-mile trip to Havana, unless they have family on the island or can convince the U.S. government that their reasons for going are unrelated to tourism or commerce.

Yet the Mubarak government we supported for so long fell in a three-week rebellion that Washington neither anticipated nor ever really understood, while the Castro government we dislike so intensely remains intact.

The embargo began in 1960 after the newly installed Cuban government engaged in large-scale expropriation of American companies’ property. (The Cuban version of this story is that Cuba offered to pay for the property using the values declared on the previous year’s tax returns, but that due to widespread tax fraud, these values were ridiculously low, leading companies to instead consider the property stolen.) At that point, economic sanctions made sense. Trade requires trust, which is difficult to establish with a country that has just stolen a great deal of your citizens’ property.

The embargo continued to make sense throughout the Cold War, particularly in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Trading with a country that poses a potential military threat is clearly counterproductive. Today, this logic justifies our sanctions against Iran, with its ongoing pursuit of an aggressive nuclear program and its tendency to take hostages whenever need and opportunity coincide.

Now, however, neither the trade nor the military rationale applies to Cuba.

Every major U.S. trading partner also trades freely with Cuba. Non-U.S. companies operate freely there. Spain’s Sol Meliá hotel chain, for example, runs several popular hotels in the island nation.

The U.S., meanwhile, is inconsistent. There was no embargo after Hungary’s Communist government nationalized American property in 1947, more than a decade before Fidel Castro took power in Cuba. U.S.-Hungarian relations were strained throughout the ’50s and ’60s, but in 1973, the U.S. reached an agreement with Budapest, still under Communist rule, to settle American financial claims. In the late 1980s, with no significant economic pressure from the U.S., Hungary began enacting widespread democratic reforms along with its Warsaw Pact neighbours.

Any military threat is long gone. The Soviet Union no longer exists. Another still-Communist former Cold War adversary, Vietnam, has enjoyed diplomatic relations with Washington since the 1990s, and is increasingly popular with American tourists. China, of course, is likewise Communist and autocratic, and is one of our leading trade partners.

The only remaining justification for continuing the embargo against Cuba is the hope that the embargo will prompt regime change. But, for 50 years, it hasn’t.

The Egyptian revolution demonstrates that regime change happens when a nation’s citizens are moved to action. Sanctions do not accomplish this, but exposure to freedom sometimes does.

The U.S. embargo has perhaps served as the single most powerful tool for the Cuban propaganda machine. It restricts the average Cuban’s contact with prosperous, uninhibited and (importantly) often Spanish-speaking Americans, while it also gives the Castro government an endlessly useful scapegoat.

Allowing U.S. tourists to visit Cuba would flood the country with ambassadors of democracy. These ambassadors would share their values and their experiences, while they also would create demand for unfettered access to the outside world through the Internet. A recently leaked video revealed that Cuba’s leaders recognise the threat the Internet could pose to their control by linking Cuban dissidents with dissidents around the world. Yet Cuba already has unblocked several sites critical of the government and plans to increase its Internet capacity.

It can afford these moves because hardly any Cubans currently have access to the Internet, relying instead on the country-wide Intranet. More vacationing Americans, however, would force Cuba to upgrade its capabilities, providing wireless connectivity for mobile devices and laptops. With more access for foreigners, greater access for Cubans would be almost inevitable. An end to the embargo would also force the Cuban government to drop its claim that it would like to increase Internet access for citizens, but hasn’t been able to do so because of its inability to tap into American cables.

Castro’s revolution was itself a rebellion against an autocratic regime favoured by the U.S. government. That uprising was co-opted by a clique that has entrenched its own power and privilege for 50 years. An end to the embargo could help give the Cuban people a second chance to liberate themselves. It is time to drop the approach that has not worked, and embrace the one that has, most recently in Egypt.

For more articles on financial, business, and other topics, view the Palisades Hudson newsletter, Sentinel, or subscribe to my daily opinion column, Current Commentary.

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