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?