US-Cuba thaw: Is Obama extending economic 'lifeline' to communist regime?

President Obama's decision to open relations with Cuba has sparked swift and vocal opposition from critics who say it will only aid the Castro regime. Supporters say the move promises to nudge the Cuban regime to expand political and economic freedom.

Javier Galeano/Reuters
Anti-Castro activists protest in Little Havana in Miami, Florida December 17. News on Wednesday that the United States will restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba and open an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half century rippled through the 1.5-million-strong exile community in the United States, many of them lifelong opponents of communist rule.

Will closer financial ties between the United States and Cuba help to promote political reform on the communist island or simply prop up a morally bankrupt regime?

That question is stirring deep controversy after President Obama announced a major move to open diplomatic relations with Cuba after a five-decade attempt to isolate the Castro regime out of existence.

Mr. Obama said “these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” and argued that “we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement.”

Although many Americans in public opinion polls agree with that view, the president’s action has sparked swift and vocal opposition from critics who say it will only aid the Castro regime.

“The United States has just thrown the Cuban regime an economic lifeline,” Sen. Robert Menendez  (D) of New Jersey, outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement released Wednesday. Another senator of Cuban-American heritage, Ted Cruz (R) of Texas, used the same “economic lifeline” phrase in issuing his own lament.

Which side is right?

Although Cuba experts line up on both sides of this complex question, many share a few points of common ground: One is that the latest moves announced jointly in Washington and Havana will inject some meaningful economic resources to the Cuban economy, which promise to benefit the Castro regime as well as ordinary Cubans.

But a second point of consensus is that a five-decade US economic embargo aimed at squeezing Cuba shows no signs of toppling the communist government.

And Cuba experts say that under either Obama’s new policy or the prior status quo, the aging Raul Castro wants to see the regime live on after his own time in power ends. The key question, then, is whether the new economic and diplomatic opening does more to promote reform and political dissent than it does to prop up the regime with new funds or credibility.

Here’s some context to help understand the arguments on both sides:

  • Obama can’t end the longstanding economic embargo of Cuba on his own. Congress would need to act, and under all-Republican control next session that isn’t likely any time soon.
  • Some significant economic changes are on the horizon all the same. The White House announced an easing of policies on travel between the two nations, eased the embargo’s constraints on certain imports and exports (including of phone and Internet equipment, as well as building and farming supplies), and raised caps on the flow of remittances to Cuban nationals to $2,000 per quarter, up from $500 before.
  • Economic sanctions tend to have limited effects when imposed by one nation alone. Critics of the embargo note that the US doesn’t take a similar stance against communist China or Vietnam. Embargo supporters counter that trade and diplomacy haven’t brought political freedom to those nations.
  • Cuba is under pressure now, because collapsing oil prices are squeezing the economy of Venezuela, a key benefactor of Cuba as a supplier of subsidized fuel. Those subsidies, along with remittances to individuals, are key props for Cuba’s weak economy.
  • The Cuban economy is among the world’s least free, according to an index created by the Heritage Foundation. Minimal property rights, heavy levels of regulation, and serious corruption problems put Cuba at the bottom of the ranking’s heap in the Western Hemisphere.

On one side of the debate, critics of liberalized relations say Venezuela’s woes afford a moment of fresh leverage, to keep the pressure on Cuba to reform before normalizing relations or ending the embargo.

Instead of that happening, they say, the communist regime in Havana will now reap some of the financial gains from increased travel and trade.

“Precisely what worries the regime is giving up economic control,” former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said in a conference call arranged by the Wilson Center Friday. “My prediction would be that any economic change to appease the US will be tactical in nature and will ensure that the Castros stay in full control.”

On the other side, supporters of the White House course say opening relations promises to push the Cuban regime to expand political and economic freedom, not least because of a freer flow of information to Cubans.

“The opportunities here are great right now,” says Miriam Leiva, an independent Cuban journalist in Havana, who also spoke on the Wilson Center call. She said dissidents are still treated harshly, but that the combination of an economic crisis and the shifting US stance could combine to nudge the regime toward reforms.

At the very least, say Ms. Leiva and others, Obama’s move should lessen the ability of the Castro regime to make the US a scapegoat for what’s wrong in Cuba.

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