December 14th, 2013
01:26 AM ET

Give capitalism a chance to change Cuba

By Fareed Zakaria

In the midst of the extraordinary spectacle of Nelson Mandela's funeral – in a stadium with some 90,000 mourners, including more than 90 heads of government – a small gesture caught the world's attention. President Barack Obama moved to greet Dilma Rousseff, the president of Brazil. On his way, he shook hands with the person to Rousseff’s right. The photograph of that handshake ricocheted around the world. Understandably, because the man Obama shook hands with was Raul Castro, president of Cuba.

Remember, the United States does not have diplomatic relations with Cuba, and has a tight trade embargo in place against the island nation. So, many wondered whether this handshake was the beginning of a great shift in policy.

I hope so. Let's begin by asking whether the existing policy is working. In 1960, the United States enacted an embargo against Cuba. Its purpose was simple and explicit: regime change. Did it work? Well, until he retired from the presidency in 2008, Fidel Castro was the longest serving head of government in the world. Surely that's about as powerful evidence as one can get that the policy did not work and is not working.

The truth is that Cuba's miserable economy is almost entirely its own fault. The Castro regime has coupled political repression with communist economic policies and the result, predictably, has been total failure and stagnation. But things are changing in Cuba. The government has been experimenting with opening up elements of the economy. By some estimates about 20 percent of the Cuban economy is now in the private sector.

The best path forward for Washington is one that has been recommended by many experts, from Jorge Casteneda, the former Mexican foreign minister to Human Rights Watch. The United States should shift from a policy of regime change in Cuba, which has not worked, to one that promotes reform and human rights aggressively.

President Obama should offer the Cuban government a series of steps that would relax restrictions on trade and travel with Cuba – but only if they are matched by real economic and political reforms in Cuba. Let the Cuban people know, for example, that if its government were to free all political prisoners, the United States would be willing to relax the embargo.

Americans should have greater faith in the power of markets, trade and travel to eat away at the Cuban dictatorship, strengthen Cuban civil society, including private business, and thus change the character of the country. Washington has tried isolation, sanctions, and embargoes against Cuba for more than five decades with dismal results. Why not try capitalism for five years?

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Topics: Cuba • Fareed's Take

soundoff (256 Responses)
  1. ivan cruz

    if everyone would read, they would now that now small businesses can have a few employees, and that now small loans are available for start upts and expansion, through the state bank. Also now state wholesellers are sprouting up to supply the growing private sector, which is now 20 percent. with no embargo and sanctions, foreign banks would be free to expand financial services, therefore creating more private jobs.

    December 21, 2013 at 8:25 am | Reply
    • PattyD

      The pope would not agree with you. He feels capitalism is a menace and in the redistribution of wealth, like Obammy. So, let Cuba alone, and let their people share their own wealth and rot in hell.

      December 25, 2013 at 5:05 pm | Reply
  2. akram

    ITS awrong policy its not working the only thing is hurting the ordinary people in cuba the big example is mr castro in power try to compre the people in cuba and the rest of latin america i went to republic dominica and i see in my eyes and i spoke with people thre mostof the teacher tere come from cuba doctors so if you compare the system between these two country you find out that the peopl in cuba is better MORE EDUCATED MRE EALTHY by the way all young kids in cuba are obige to go to school

    December 21, 2013 at 9:06 am | Reply
  3. Peter Holland

    The U.S. should get over it, lift all embargos now so that the people of Cuba can have a better life. The heads of government of any country will always lead a life much better than their citizens so forget about Castro.
    Trade, sports and tourism should be our coal with Cuba.
    A second thought, no fast food business should be allowed in as most of us know what that does to a nation.......yoooo fatso.

    December 21, 2013 at 1:07 pm | Reply
  4. smarter to work with the giant next door

    One just has to look closely at what the infamous Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse Dung did to China, over a 26 year period, from 1949 thru 1975, to understand how a misguided, violent, paranoid nutcase can cause an entire nation to be "held back" in terms of real progress over a long period of being held within the "grip" of a tyrant! So multiply that by x2, to get 52 years, and you have the equally wonderful communist debacle of the misguided, violent, paranoid nutcase Fidel Castro holding back Cuba......... and the entire world has indeed noticed what happened to China over the last 26 years, after they threw of their communist tyrant "yoke" and cleverly morphed into a Capitalist Nation with a mere veneer of Communism........ maybe Cuba can learn from the story of China, and release itself from its Castro cancer.......... I mean, really........... :)

    December 21, 2013 at 5:22 pm | Reply
    • BobPitt

      The monster was created by the single minded American view, right after Batista was kicked out Fidel tried to get a deal with the US, and was given with door on his face, so he searched help somewhere else, the same situation applies to the moderates in Iran, the moderates in Iraq, South America etc..
      The best way out is to reach to them negotiate and compromise on a deal, as your own president said "the notion we are not going to talk to them is ridicules""

      December 25, 2013 at 9:50 am | Reply
    • watermark0n

      Fidel Castro's regime never even approached the totalitarianism of Mao Zedong. You know nothing of history

      January 9, 2014 at 4:05 am | Reply
  5. Sidney

    What does Freed's as an Indian have to say about the recent arrest of Indian Diplomat's arrest in New York?

    December 21, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Reply
    • Fareed's alter ego personified

      She deserved it. Period. Just because a person has "diplomatic" status, granted by holding a "A1" visa, certainly does NOT give them the right to exploit anybody, especially hiring their own "Indian" nannies and paying them slave wages....... shame on her.........

      December 21, 2013 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  6. Roland

    Fareed you are a knowledgable,intelligent man do you honestly think U.S. policy on Cuba is about "regime change" ? Or things like human rights what have you? No it is about economically strangling a communist state that if succesful could act as an example to others.Creating a "domino effect".

    December 22, 2013 at 5:47 am | Reply
    • BobPitt

      What domino effect are you referring to? Just talk to them make compromises and forge a deal, no drama and give the Castro's a way out, and you have a win win situation, just remember, the US is the only country not doing business in Cuba.

      December 25, 2013 at 9:53 am | Reply
  7. Roland

    The U.S. did Marshall aid after WW2 not because Americans were so concerned with European well being the problem was Eastern Europe was developing and rebuilding faster then the West giving people bad ideas.Vietnam they bombed and poisoned and they installed dictators all around to prevent the "virus" from spreading.This policy continues all over the place.Look at Iran , there the problem isnt that Teheran is a brutal theocracy,Saudi Arabia is worse,the problem is they do not follow orders from Washington, succesful defiance of Washington means potential loss of the energy reserves of the M.E. as people take matters into there own hands.

    December 22, 2013 at 6:03 am | Reply
  8. Emre

    I think that US should give a chance to Cuba by lifting the embargos , Fareed Zakaria should shut his mouth and see the fact that capitalism is the system which creates hunger , not communism.

    December 22, 2013 at 7:18 pm | Reply
    • Fareed's alter ego personified

      That's why 3 million Russians desperately migrated to America since 1990, because they love Russia so much and hate America so much????? Fareed Zakaria has proven himself to be a very smart and extremely well read Harvard Graduate, who talks and walks with Kings, Presidents, very smart people, leaders and experts, constantly, and has a superb insight on a zillion subjects!!!!!!! When you get invited to give the Commencement Address at Harvard, like Fareed, then we will shut our mouths and listen to you..........

      December 23, 2013 at 1:42 am | Reply
  9. Bobby

    I disagree, if we had not held to the sanctions and gave up after a few months or year, the threat of them is diminished When used against other nations like N. Korea, Sudan or even more recently Iran they do give other regimes reason to pause even if the results are somewhat mxed. If we gave up sanctions simply because we got bored of them; it's one less arrow in our quiver.

    December 23, 2013 at 5:13 am | Reply
  10. windyspirit

    Hello?? Did you not read that Castro DOES NOT want Americans to intrude and change anything. Don't you get it??

    December 23, 2013 at 6:10 pm | Reply
    • Fareed's alter ego personified

      Blow away, windy spirit. Half the nations on Planet Earth do not want America to interfere or mess with their world....... America does so anyway...... to its own benefit......... In the case of Cuba, it was to our mutual detriment to embargo & sanction Cuba. Being an island only 90 miles from Florida, you bet we have to play poker with them........ Castro pulled out the Russian card 50 years ago, to his own benefit....... but his people wallow in poverty........ Fareed's point is well intentioned....... by opening up Cuba to Capitalism, both nations could benefit......

      December 23, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Reply
  11. EA Marco Polo

    ["Civilian businesses" better than "capitalism"]

    Comparison between the US and Cuba; the US has higher incarceration rate than Cuba, 2.2 million US citizens are put in crowded US jails, it is about half of world prisoners. The US government, immoral media and fake right groups kill 100,000 innocent Iraqis, 4500 US soldiers and 76,000 sinless Syrian; thus Cuba has a better record on human right than corrupt US.

    However, the socialism is a wrong ideology, it is no work on economy obviously; maybe just emphasize the importance of "civil businesses" that is enough than capitalism. Cuba will change and is changing; they will choice their own way.

    December 24, 2013 at 10:18 pm | Reply
    • BobPitt

      I my eyes your are correct, socialism in the raw state is unsustainable and inefficient, however Capitalism with a strong safety net is much better than either system in the raw state..

      December 25, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Reply
  12. maruzicho

    I think we do need to work with a neighboring country as Cuba. I think it benefits both countries and creates economic profits for both sides. If Cuba can go by rules and promote healthy values I am for it.

    December 25, 2013 at 8:20 pm | Reply
  13. HaroldWestdal

    Fareed noted that sanctions have not worked. What he failed to mention is the less than savory aspects of American/Cuba relations that have not worked either. The sponsored invasion of Cuba (Bay of Pigs). The attempted murder of their head of state (poison cigars no less) and on-going attempts at de-stabilization. This unwillingness to talk about the less than flattering aspects of US foreign interventions is a common thread in US talk shows. The result is that the American audience – the target audience – is less well informed than everyone living outside the US. It is unfortunate and unproductive. How can people understand the relationship with foreign states if they only see one side. The sunny side no less.
    I am a big fan. Never miss an episode.

    December 26, 2013 at 1:56 pm | Reply
    • Daniel Daronda

      Great comment! Yes indeed, we Americans are so used to watching the "Soap Opera" of human behavior on Planet Earth unfold thru the eyes of our own biased perspective........... if only we could understand that we actually wrote the book on terrorism........... ........ when will we understand that since 1491 AD, us Europeans have been sailing our ships to every country that we could sail to, murdered over half the "natives" in those countries. put our flags on their soil, and proclaimed that we now "owned" the place............ which makes us "white people" the worst terrorists on Planet Earth by far............... :(

      December 26, 2013 at 6:16 pm | Reply
  14. Aleks Yakubssohn

    opening up trade and lifting embargo BEFORE regime change enough(like releasing political prisoners, allowing multi-partisan system etc) will only strengthen the oppressive communist regime, not weaken it. proof–China. and as for the supposedly 'failed' policy–excuse me, it has more holes that Swiss cheese! thousand of American go to Cuba every year via Canada, Mexico and other countries; besides the embargo is US only, it's not been supported by the rest of free world; plus Cuba for decades got aid first from USSR, then from Chavez's Venezuela; plus we have on many occasions shown weakness in critical situations, such as refugee crisis 0f '95, or the Elian Gonzalez story. Not to mention that CIA has for like 40 yrs been banned from attempts to assassinate 'legitimate' national leaders. those are all the reasons why Castro regime is still in place, in other words it's not the embargo, it's lack thereof. let Raul release political prisoners and allow free elections in his country–then i'll approve of Obama shaking hands with him; cause then there'll be no reason not to
    by the way, Mandela should really be a hint and inspiration for the Castros, because Mandela understood, after coming to power, the necessity of keeping what was good in the previous system of his country, and adopting it to the new reality. that's why RSA has been a beacon of growth in Africa, whereas Cuba for over half century has been a hellhole, even though once it was a beaming and burgeoning place

    December 27, 2013 at 9:03 am | Reply
  15. josh

    Castro told America long ago that socialism is the key to solve US problems. Obama is his favorite.

    December 27, 2013 at 6:58 pm | Reply
  16. watermark0n

    The Cubans can't revolt because "they don't have guns"? Jesus Christ way stupidity. I'm sure people in eastern Europe and Russia were loaded, right? The gun nuts have totally lost touch with reality.

    January 9, 2014 at 4:01 am | Reply
  17. Eddie Fonseca

    When we as Americans think of Cuban economy as being a communist government that represses, it citizen's and that is far from the truth there are many things that Cuba, has given to the United States of America and to the rest of the world from great salsa music musician's to producing world class baseball players who play for the New York Yankees. Cuba also a world health care system that comes close to the United States of America health care system, and also the great Cuban American salsa singer Gloria Estefan came from that country and gave us great salsa music. Cuba will benefit from having a mixed capitalism government, which allows business and the people to share the wealth of what they make for their country and to have pride in what they earn. As an American who has been to Cuba on vacation, the people always tell they long for the day's to be free and to earn a descent living like the people in America when talking over a cup of coffee in a café while watching a baseball game on the television. As Americans we live in a country that believes every American has the right to earn a descent wage, to support his or her family and to send our kids to the best colleges so they can earn that college certificate make America one of the best country's to work in. Without Cuba having a mixed capitalism economy like the good old USA does, will they their citizen's find success like Americans experience in their daily lives or will the communist party rule the people like an iron fist for years to come.

    April 16, 2014 at 10:40 pm | Reply
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