The communist regime in Cuba was just about to come tumbling down, ending decades of dictatorship and opening the way for freedom and democracy. But before that could happen, Jay-Z and Beyonce took a trip to the island. So Cuba’s despotism can expect to survive another 50 years.
Well, maybe I exaggerate. It’s just possible that the musical couple’s presence or absence was utterly irrelevant to Cuba’s future. Americans have somewhat less control over the island than we like to imagine.
The U.S. embargo of Cuba has been in effect since 1962, with no end in sight. Fidel Castro’s government has somehow managed to outlast the Soviet Union, Montgomery Ward, rotary-dial telephones and 10 American presidents.
The boycott adheres to the stubborn logic of governmental action. It was created to solve a problem: the existence of a communist government 90 miles off our shores. It failed to solve that problem. But its failure is taken as proof of its everlasting necessity.
If there is any lesson to be drawn from this dismal experience, though, it’s that the economic quarantine has been either 1) grossly ineffectual or 2) positively helpful to the regime.
The first would not be surprising, if only because economic sanctions almost never work. Iraq under Saddam Hussein? Nope. Iran? Still waiting. North Korea? Don’t make me laugh.
What makes this embargo even less promising is that we have so little help in trying to apply the squeeze. Nearly 200 countries allow trade with Cuba. Tourists from Canada and Europe flock there in search of beaches, nightlife and Havana cigars, bringing hard currency with them. So even if starving the country into submission could work, Cuba hasn’t starved and won’t anytime soon.
Nor is it implausible to suspect that the boycott has been the best thing that ever happened to the Castro brothers, providing them a scapegoat for the nation’s many economic ills. The implacable hostility of the Yankee imperialists also serves to align Cuban nationalism with Cuban communism. Even Cubans who don’t like Castro may not relish being told what to do by the superpower next door.
Normally it is no business of the federal government where private citizens want to spend their vacation time. But among those who claim to speak for the Cuban exile community, it is anathema for anyone to visit the island as long as the communists hold power. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was among those lambasting the couple for daring to venture where he doesn’t want them to go.
Rubio claimed that people who make visits to Cuba “either don’t realize or don’t care that they’re essentially funding the regime’s systematic trampling of people’s human rights.” Such activity, he said, “provides money to a cruel, repressive and murderous regime.”
That may be true. But U.S. law allows Americans to visit the island according to certain rules enforced by the Treasury Department, and some 500,000 people from the U.S. go each year. The rules for cultural trips were tightened last year after Rubio griped that they were too lax.
“The trip was handled according to a standard licensing procedure for federally approved ‘people to people’ cultural tours to the island,” reported Reuters, “and the power couple received no special treatment, said Academic Arrangements Abroad, the New York-based group that organized the trip.”
When it comes to sending money to a “cruel, repressive, murderous regime,” Rubio’s outrage is strangely selective. The same accusation could be laid against anyone who travels to China, Vietnam or Burma — all of which are open to American visitors, as far as Washington is concerned.
Our willingness to trade with them stems from the belief that economic improvement and contact with outsiders will foster liberalization rather than retard it. But the opposite approach is supposed to produce this kind of progress in Cuba.
Do trade and tourism work to weaken repression? The evidence is mixed. But our attempted economic strangulation of Cuba has been an emphatic bust. We keep trying it, and the communist government remains in full control, making a mockery of our strategy.
The U.S. government has been tireless in pursuing a policy that does not look better with time. It could benefit from the advice of W.C. Fields, who said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then give up. No use being a damned fool about it.”
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Steve Chapman blogs daily at newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/steve_chapman.