Editor's Note: Christopher Sabatini is editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.
By Christopher Sabatini, Americas Quarterly
The people-power revolutions that ousted the decades-old autocratic governments of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and are rocking the rest of the Middle East have prompted Cuba watchers –yet again– to wonder when the last redoubt of Cold War dictatorship in the hemisphere is next. It isn't, and we have U.S. policy partly to blame.
For the last two decades, from Eastern Europe to Egypt, none of the countries that has experienced a people's revolution has been under a U.S. embargo. Though it is about to be the target of focused sanctions as a result of its bloody response to the protestors (and deservedly so) before the current uprising even Libya saw its sanctions ended in 2004 by the George W. Bush administration. In the case of Libya –and in the past– targeted sanctions tied to a specific act by the government can provoke a course correction or even collapse. Over the long-term, though, sanctions actually seal a country off from the rest of the world and allow a government to dig in.
The inverse relationship between isolation and people's revolution is no coincidence. Contact with the outside world builds capacity and ideas insidious to even the most tyrannical regime.
Whether it was the 1989 Velvet Revolution in then-Czechoslovakia, the end of communist rule in Poland (two years after U.S. sanctions were ended after the crackdown on Solidarity) or the broad coalition that ended the 30 year-reign of Mubarak last week, the symbols, motivations and means of these peaceful transitions owe much to the sort of contacts that the 52-year U.S. embargo on Cuba has cut off.
Defended as a way to deny the regime of Fidel and Raúl Castro the resources to oppress its own people, the U.S.' half century-old sanctions against Cuba have, in pursuing this noble effort, become a blunt instrument. In the name of this cause, the embargo has sealed off the Cuban people from personal interaction with average Americas and denied it the inspiration and tools for its own liberation. Communication, contact and even limited trade is not a zero sum game; sometimes, yes, the regime may benefit, but sometimes the people benefit more, especially when it helps break down the control over information that such regimes need to survive.
Make no mistake. The level and type of repression in Cuba exceeds that in Egypt under Mubarak or even Eastern Europe under communism. Fifty years of cruel, systematic repression by the Castro regime, the penetration of government spies throughout society and the suffocating control of the state over the economy have atomized civil society, closed off freedom of expression and left Cuban citizens dependent for their livelihoods on the state. As a result, many Cubans –especially the younger generation-beaten down by decades of repression, deprived of inspiring contact with the outside world and denied broad access to the tools of communication– are left waiting for the end of a gerontocracy.
A series of initiatives by the Obama administration in 2009 to allow for greater telecommunications contact with the island and for person-to-person contact for cultural or educational changes with Cuba have helped to alleviate some of the isolation. These could have gone, farther, however, in ways that would directly support broader contacts between the U.S. citizens and Cuban society and help to develop the means for Cubans to communicate among themselves.
Restrictions on U.S. telecommunications investment in Cuba are more stringent than toward Syria and even Iran–a country that is now experiencing its own groundswell of support, thanks at least in part to social media. In Cuba, the effort to expand access to new media tools such as high-speed Internet, Twitter, Facebook and Google ran smack into the 1992 the Cuban Democracy Act which prohibits U.S. investment that contributes Cuba's telecommunications infrastructure. Cell phones, fiber optic cable and social media require hardware and software forbidden under the U.S. current restrictions toward Cuba. Cuba's first fiber optic cable arrived last week. Rather than coming from the U.S., though, it came courtesy of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, whose government, in December, instituted restrictions on freedom of expression on the Internet.
Would the Cuban government have allowed its citizens to purchase and use these potentially subversive tools that the U.S. companies produce and sell? We'll never know since the U.S. did it for them. Ironic that a democratic, supposedly freedom- and free-market promoting government did the dirty work for the Cuban regime.
As for the recent reforms to expand people-to-people contact between the island and the U.S., even these mild measures are meeting with resistance. Two U.S. Senators are trying to cap the number of flights to Cuba. Given that the flights would shuttle cultural and educational travelers to the island, the intention is unclear. To deny Cubans access to U.S. music? Art? Education? A similar move to choke off personal contact with Eastern Europe during the Cold War (many dissidents cited the influence of rock and roll in their rebellion), or even Egypt or Tunisia, would have rightly been met with derision. The infectious effect of personal exchange, intellectual empowerment and human contact grossly outweighs any possible advantages any regime can extract from a few tourist dollars. Just as the victorious crowds in Egypt demonstrate.
Under current U.S. law Cuba will never have a Wael Ghonim, the Google executive who has become a hero in Egypt for defending freedom of expression and communication among activists in Egypt. Nor are we likely to see one rise anytime soon. International contact, investment, access to communication inspired and sparked the mass rallies that contributed to the end of 30 years of Mubarak's rule. In the case of Cuba, for the Castro brothers, it's been over 50 years. Under the current sanctions, we're going to be waiting for some time unfortunately.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Christopher Sabatini. For more analysis on Latin America, visit the America's Quarterly blog.
Wait, are we still pretending it was facebook, twitter, and google and not the people of those countries that overthrew their corrupt rulers?
How would you even know what Cuba is like when you can't even travel there as a US citizen? You talk about freedom when you are restricted in your own freedom from even travelling?
Been there several times, and I would say the people there are fairing better than those of Mexico and other south American countries.
When all else fails(which it has) it's time to KILL them with kindness. The best way to extinguish the Castro flame is to smother it.Let's send them everything thats good with us and show the citizens of Cuba what there missing. Castro's demise would be quick.
Interesting. My comment has not been shown though the system gives me the message "You already said that" when I try to re-send it. The site is not supposed to have pre-screening, and besides there is nothing objectionable in my post. If I would be posting from Cuba I would blame the government firewalls but that is not the case. A little mistery....
The article core thesis than contact and communication are better than isolation it is obviously correct.
Embargo (actually a total economic war against Cuba, see *) could be justified if government of Cuba would be threatening neighbor countries or shooting against large crowds of its own citizens. Though it is far from being a paradise of free speech and democracy none of the above mentioned situations are happening in the island, and that is probably the main reason that all countries represented in the UN (except the USA, Israel and a couple of tiny islands) have voted against the American embargo policies once a year for about two decades.
So why is so difficult to change policies that are obviously wrong and that have been widely criticized by the international community?
The answer is that the Cuban question is not a matter of foreign policy in the US, but a matter of internal politics.
The Cuban right wing politicians are very powerful in the State of Florida, which holds a quite significant number of electoral votes in presidential elections and can be a decisive factor in the making or breaking of a presidential candidate.
These politicians have made their fortunes (political fortunes most of the time but sometimes even their financial as well) by being 'tough' hardliners unwilling to accept any change in the traditional approach of the US towards Cuba. For an American politician leave the Cuban issue the way it is is a very small price to pay in a race for the White House or to obtain support to pass some legislation. If you put this together with the usual reluctance of the establishments of great powers to recognize mistakes you end up with the situation we have today.
For the Cuban government all this has been very convenient. The economic war against Cuba waged by the USA provides the Cuban government with a very convenient explanation for the deep economic crisis in which the island has been since 1990. It gives them all the material necessary to create the "image of the enemy" necessary to keep the status quo in the island.
So in short is the history of the opposites that end up reinforcing each other. These kind of situations tend to be very stable and therefore difficult to change. Perspectives are not good.
* The Embargo policies are actually a total economic war against the island. The most important thing that Cuba is deprived -besides the intense interchange of people and goods with the USA – is access to credit. Since 1991, when Cuba main creditor, the Soviet Union, disappeared the Island have seen all the attempts to obtain credits to finance its economy , torpedoed by the USA. Cuba has not access to the World Bank or the IMF, the natural sources for financing national economic projects. International banks are closely monitored by the USA in their transactions with Cuba. Recently the Swiss bank UBS was fined around 250 million dollars for having certain transactions with Cuba using American dollars. Other big banks have been fined as well. It has been said that around 60% of the personnel of the OFAC are devoted to monitor Cuba's economic operations (instead of monitoring the operations of terrorist supporters for instance). All this atmosphere scare away the possible creditors and Cuba have been forced to have deals with the international equivalents of "loan sharks" to try to finance its economy. It is no wonder the desperate situation in which it is.
sounds like this article was written by Fidel himself. If it's you, Fidel, get out of Cuba, let the cuban people choose between different political parties in elections. Let them travel within the Island. Let them have freedom of speech, let them see the news from different points of view. You can do it, Fidel. If someone wants to be a communist, let him be, but if someone doesnt like communism, let that person be, too. And if you can't do it, then let your little brother Raul, do it.
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