If a change in policy is in the American national interest, then it is a good idea. If it is not, then it is a bad idea, and something we should not do.
In another era that would be so obvious as not to bear repeating. But seeing to our national interests (just as we expect other nations to see to theirs) has been rather lost along the way by our leaders the past dozen years, and now sounds almost touchingly quaint.
But with that guiding principle, some questions on establishing new and closer ties with Cuba:
Was it ever in our nation’s interests to have, 90 miles off our shore, an avowed and active enemy?
Is it now in our nation’s interests to have, 90 miles off our shore, an avowed and active enemy?
Is it in the national interest to attempt to change this circumstance, if only gradually and hopefully, but with a sense that breaking the status quo might yield rewards?
Yes. If the new policy succeeds and leaves an old foe less active and avowed we will be better off, and it’s always possible, life being surprising, that we’ll be much better off. If the policy fails we’ll be no worse off than we were and can revert back to the old order, yanking out our embassy and re-erecting old barriers.
Great nations are like people. We get in habits of affection and enmity. What is needed is a practice of detached realism. Sometimes those for whom you have affection are disappointing. Sometimes those toward whom you feel enmity are, you realize, an essentially defeated foe, and a new attitude might be constructive. The key is to keep eyes sharp for changed situations, and adapt.
Fidel Castro is a bad man who took an almost-paradise and turned it into a floating prison. In replacing a dictatorship whose corruption was happily leavened by incompetence, he created a communist totalitarian state that made everything in his country worse. He robbed it of wealth, beauty and potential freedom. He was also a thorn and a threat to the United States, which he hated and moved against in myriad ways. He did all this for more than half a century.
Soon he will die, and his brother supposedly has taken his place. That is a changed situation.
Normalizing relations with Cuba will not, as Sen. Marco Rubio passionately put it in these pages, grant the Castro regime “legitimacy.”
Nothing can grant it legitimacy.
Fidel Castro ruined his country for a dead ideology and the whole world knows it. It may be closer to the truth to see the Castro brothers’ eagerness for normalization as an admission that they’ve run out their string. They’ve lost everything that kept them alive, from the Soviet Union to once-oil-rich Venezuela. The Castro government is stuck. Their economy is nothing. They have no strength. They enjoy vestigial respect from certain quarters, but only vestigial. They’ve lost and they know it.
So why not move now?
Nothing magical will immediately follow normalization. The Castro brothers will not say, “I can’t believe it, free markets and democracy really are better, I had no idea!” Nothing will make Cuba democratic overnight. But American involvement and presence—American tourists and businessmen, American diplomats, American money, American ways and technology—will likely in time have a freeing effect. With increased contact a certain amount of good feeling will build. And that could make Cuba, within a generation or even less, a friend.
And that would be good for the American national interest, because it’s better to have a friend 90 miles away than an active and avowed enemy.
The opening to Cuba may also spark a re-Christianizing effect among a people who’ve been denied freedom of religious worship for generations. That would be good too, for them and us.
There is no reason to believe increased engagement between America and Cuba would encourage a post-Castro government to be more antagonistic or aggressive toward the U.S. More movement and commerce, including media presence, will not give that government more motive to embarrass itself by abusing and oppressing its people. As for the military, it wouldn’t be long, with lifted embargoes, before captains in the Cuban army found out what managers in the new Hilton were making, and jumped into hotel services.
With a real opening, including lifted embargoes, all the pressure year by year would be toward more back-and-forth, greater prosperity, and more freedom squeaking in by Internet and television.
In a rising Cuba all the pressure will be toward freedom. It will not be toward dictatorship.
In America, attention has rightly been paid to the Cuban-Americans of Florida and their reaction. They were cruelly displaced by the communist regime and forced to flee Cuba. They lost everything, came here penniless, and through gifts and guts rose to economic and political power. The oldest, who came in 1960, feel bitterness—and are loyal to that bitterness. Their children, a little less so, and the next generation less still. Because everything changes. You can’t let a foreign policy be governed by bitterness even when that bitterness is legitimate. Advice to the U.S. government: Attempt in time to create some kind of U.S.-Cuban framework whereby those whose property was expropriated can reclaim it.
President Obama’s opening seems so far cleverly done and well wired. He has major cover from the involvement of the most popular pope in recorded history, and also from the government of Canada, an ever-popular country whose prime minister, the sturdy, steady Stephen Harper , is the most quietly effective head of government in the Northern Hemisphere.
It is to be stipulated that the particulars of the deal will prove, on inspection, to be unimpressive, because Mr Obama was the negotiator. Fair enough, but he said when he first ran for president, in 2008, that he hoped for a new kind of engagement with Cuba, and he is producing it.
Something to watch out for: When an administration goes all in on a controversial policy it tends to spend most of its follow-up time not making sure the policy works but proving, through occasionally specious data and assertions, that it was the right policy. All who judge how the new opening proceeds will have to factor that in and see past it.
A closing note: I always thought, life often being unfair, that Fidel Castro would die the death of a happy monster, old, in bed, a cigar jutting out from the pillows, a brandy on the bedside table. My dream the past few years was that this tranquil end would be disturbed by this scene: American tourists jumping up and down outside his window, snapping pictures on their smartphones. American tourists flooding the island, befriending his people, doing business with them, showing in their attitude and through a million conversations which system is, actually, preferable. Castro sees them through the window. He grits his teeth so hard the cigar snaps off. Money and sentiment defeat his life’s work. He leaves the world knowing that in history’s great game, he lost.
Open the doors, let America flood the zone and snap those pictures. “Fidel! Look this way!” Snap. Flash. Gone.