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 (258 Responses)
  1. matslats

    Hasn't your capitalism done enough damage for one century?

    December 14, 2013 at 1:38 am | Reply
    • Trevor

      Alternative that has proven to work better?

      December 14, 2013 at 3:17 pm | Reply
      • Iris

        Perhaps an indigenous way of life... That seemed to work for, like, a while

        December 14, 2013 at 4:14 pm |
      • Baal

        Define better......

        December 15, 2013 at 12:21 am |
      • j. von hettlingen

        Be it capitalism or communism, ideologies alone don't work. A successful formula is to find the right mix, that best suits a country's resources and demography.

        December 21, 2013 at 11:24 am |
    • kingofhearts

      Phhuckk you phguckk stick. Damage? That's the price of freedom idiot. Stop blaming capitalism for the world's problems. The day the dictators step down is the day the world can rejoice.

      December 14, 2013 at 8:14 pm | Reply
      • Joseph McCarthy

        Please kingofhearts, do refrain from using that nasty Tea Party lingo. Like I said so many times before, it has absolutely no place here! Besides, not all so-called "evil" dictators are bad and most Congress people on Capitol Hill are not so good, either!

        December 14, 2013 at 9:21 pm |
    • punx99

      Most western countries already have hybrid economies across the spectrum. This also includes the US.

      December 21, 2013 at 8:02 pm | Reply
  2. ✠RZ✠

    Cuba will remain in limbo until the next crisis. And should that ever happen, the results will likely be considerably different from the last one.

    December 14, 2013 at 8:14 am | Reply
  3. Jose R. Cardenas

    "President" Raul Castro? I guess I missed that election where the Cuban people freely and fairly elected GENERAL Castro as their president.

    Mr. Zakaria writes: "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."

    Sure, I guess we could go through another such mindless exercise, but we will only wind up in the exact same place we are now: with a military dictatorship hardly interested in real reform, but merely angling to maintain absolute power.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:33 am | Reply
    • b jones

      Did you also miss the election where the American people fairly elected George W Bush....after he had LOST the vote in Florida! Are you living in that wonderful democratic country where everyone gets free health, education and the vast wealth of the country is shared failrly. Or do you live in a country where 40 million can't afford basic health resources, where 1% control and own 90% of the wealth, and where the American dream is but a myth perpetuated by CNN, Fox News and the neo-liberals in power?
      Take along hard look at the mess the US is in before criticising others

      December 14, 2013 at 3:58 pm | Reply
      • Jose R. Cardenas

        sure, the "mess" in the United States - except for every other country in the world. The next time you pick up a newspaper you will notice that the U.S. has an immigration problem, not an emigration problem. Who the hell is literally dying to get into Cuba?

        December 14, 2013 at 5:43 pm |
      • Lee Rivas

        Like my old pappy used to say:

        "They's three kinds of lies. They's 'lies.' They's 'damn lies.' And they's 'statistics.' "

        December 14, 2013 at 6:58 pm |
      • Plant

        What is done in Cuba should stay in Cuba including the many of those trying to reach our shores. It is only the Cubans can change Cuba. They caused their own problems. Stop coming to the USA an add to an already over loaded welfare and education system, in the southen pars of the States

        December 14, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
      • kingofhearts

        You're joking, right? American's poorest people live like kings compared to those in real poverty. Wake up IDIOT. Oh, and that 1 percent you speak of? At least it's not government ownership.

        December 14, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
      • kingofhearts

        90 percent of Americans can't get their hands on the 1 percent's share, because they are lazy idiots who are accepting their hand outs, instead of working hard to build their wealth.

        December 14, 2013 at 8:20 pm |
  4. robert jordan

    Mr. Farid: Unlike 99% of your fellow US citizens (who are prohibited by our "freedom-loving" government from travelling to Cuba), as a journalist you are allowed to go there without penalty. Why not go for 10 days or so - travelling in the countryside?? Use your eyes and ears. Talk with everyday people, hear them express their views, including praise and criticism of their government. (I've done it.) Then you will have begun the process of knowing what you are talking about–a fair requisite, I'd propose, for one in your profession.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:56 am | Reply
    • Lee Rivas

      Better yet, interview North Koreans and note the similarity in their responses vis-a-vis "The Great Leader."

      December 14, 2013 at 7:02 pm | Reply
    • kingofhearts

      What would people of Cuba even be able to comment on? They know nothing other than slavery. SLAVERY!

      December 14, 2013 at 8:30 pm | Reply
  5. Mark Rushton

    "The truth is that Cuba's miserable economy is almost entirely its own fault." No serious assessment of Cuba could ever arrive at this conclusion. 50+ years of economic strangulation under the U.S. economic embargo – you just cast that aside as inconsequential? Ridiculous. Trade, transportation of goods, banking services – all were and continue to be severely restricted due to the embargo. The mindless mantra of the hard-right "Cuba can trade with anyone they want to, just not the U.S." reveals a willingness to distort reality for political gains. The U.S.' economic reach and ability to influence the Cuban economy is significant. That Cuba was able to provide for its people under this sort of sustained economic warfare is nothing short of a miracle. It would have been fascinating to see how the economy developed if the U.S. hadn't been such a tool this past half-century...

    December 14, 2013 at 10:30 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Such is to be expected from some idiot like you with your obvious limitations, Mark. What is hurting Cuba is our Politics of Hunger which sorely needs to be outlawed at the UN on humanitarian grounds. All this right-wing bla-bla-bla about Cuba's economic problems being the fault of their own government is just pure hogwash!

      December 14, 2013 at 11:59 am | Reply
      • luis segui

        Blow it out your ass bigot Joseph McCarthy. Did you know that Ireland is a friend of Cuba? Loser. USA/Cuba Embargo=Terrorism American Style

        December 14, 2013 at 1:03 pm |
      • luis segui

        Sorry Joseph my reply was intended for Mack Lack

        December 14, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
      • Mark Rushton

        I'll go out on a limb here and guess that you have somewhat less than my 20-years experience visiting / working / studying Cuba. I only hold a doctorate focusing on Cuba's human development efforts. But the right has never liked academics, you know, people who go out, learn about the world, collate data and derive conclusions based upon that data. I'm sure your gut instinct and heartfelt beliefs are more than a match for that, eh? Thank god I'm not a citizen of the United States, and that *my* country doesn't restrict my freedom to travel and learn about the world. How's that working out for you guys, anyway?

        December 14, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
      • Jose Marti

        Mark Rushton,in all his over-educated brilliance, said:

        "Thank god I’m not a citizen of the United States, and that *my* country doesn’t restrict my freedom to travel and learn about the world. How’s that working out for you guys, anyway?"

        Tell us, Mark, what *your* great country has done to help Cuba get out of the 1950s? If your country's resources had been invested in helping Cuba to get out of economic misery, instead of building hotels and resorts for wealthy Europeans and Canadians, the Castros and their cronies would have been out of power decades ago.

        *Your* country's policies on Cuba, along with that of its European friends, are directly responsible for the blood of those that have continued to die for a Free Cuba.

        The red on your flag is a symbol of the blood on your leaders' hands.

        December 14, 2013 at 5:02 pm |
    • Stephan Nicholas Jenkins

      My guess is that their situation would be just as now. There was no economic embargo against the forner Soviet Union and its' satellite state of Easter Europe and they were in the same dire economic conditions. Their economies were stagnating and disfunctional.

      December 14, 2013 at 4:39 pm | Reply
    • steven

      Funny how all you anti-free traders now say it's because of the lack of trade with Cuba that they are poor. No, it's a failed economic system called communism that did not work, will never work, and can never work. Oh...our embargo did it? Last time I checked that have plenty of land and why are the people starving?

      December 14, 2013 at 6:25 pm | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      My deep felt apologies, Mark. I misread your post above and responded too hastily. Again, I wish to apologize.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:05 pm | Reply
  6. Mack Lack

    Economy, trade nor the US embargo should be of topic when Cuba is of subject matter. The subject matter should be "Democracy in Cuba". This country governed by a self imposed single party totalitarian dictatorship system is more than ready for a peaceful movement to a free democracy that includes all of its citizens either on the island or abroad. As a free international community, lets help it in this quest...

    December 14, 2013 at 11:58 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Thank you, Mack. Spoken like another uneducated, lame brained Tea Partier. Besides, if democracy's so great as you brag that it is, then why did it fail so miserably in the Middle East lately?

      December 14, 2013 at 12:02 pm | Reply
      • Trevor

        Uneducated? You really think that democracy was the cornerstone of the Arab Spring? All the failures in Egypt and elsewhere were due to power vacuums and a struggle for power from groups that have NEVER been able to get along and the whole process of "democratic elections" was a COMPLETE illusion...

        BTW, your creditability is severely lacking and you lose and argument or debate every time you can't seem to control you mouth by hurling personal insults...try to grow up, stick to actual valid counterpoints.

        December 14, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
      • steven

        Democracy doesn't just happen. It takes time to get it right. You compare apples to oranges. Racist.

        December 14, 2013 at 6:26 pm |
  7. John McAuliff

    Cuba has said several times that it is prepared to sit down for serious negotiations with the US in a spirit of mutual respect with everything on the table.

    While there are aspects of Cuba's political and economic system that Americans may not approve of, the same is true of China, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, etc. When we ended embargoes and normalized relations with China and Vietnam, we placed no conditions on internal governance. Why should Cuba be different, except that we still act as though the Monroe Doctrine were in effect?

    Your recommendations may be well intentioned but are really not very different than the failed policy of the past half century.

    If the US wants to influence change in Cuba, it has to end or at least ameliorate the unilateral aggression of economic warfare (the embargo) and political warfare (regime change) , as the rest of the world has repeatedly said and voted.

    Cuba has responded to our liberalization of travel by going further than the Obama Administration has. Extending the self-qualifying general license from Cuban-Americans to the rest of us for people to people, educational and cultural travel will allow a wider range of Americans to visit Cuba. People who can't afford or don't like programmed group tours should be able to stay in private bed and breakfasts or choose their own hotels, use public transportation or rent cars, etc. like everyone else in the world.

    If we officially shelved regime change and terminated the ineffective Radio/TV Marti boondoggle and USAID democracy programs, we will do far more for human rights and political freedom in Cuba than issuing denunciations or making demands. Countries under external threat are repressive, as we have witnessed several times in US history, including the anti-communist purges of the cold war and NSA excesses post 9/11.

    Exempting from the embargo the sales and purchases of Cuba's private and cooperative sector will accelerate the decentralization and growth of market economy already underway.

    Allowing Cuba to trade dollars internationally will benefit our agricultural sales and lead to the removal of the 10% surcharge on dollar exchange, substantially benefiting remittances and US visitors.

    Don't be misled by the advice of those who are trying to forestall real changes in US policy to Cuba by proposing false reciprocity that has always been rejected.

    Or do you think that Cuba and the rest of the world should deny relations to the US until we fix our incarceration rate, financial corruption of the political system and inability to control gun distribution?

    John McAuliff
    Fund for Reconciliation and Development

    December 14, 2013 at 12:03 pm | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      Regarding your disapproval of our incarceration rates. Here's another possible approach: we could declare Crime X to now be designated a Non-Crime X ... thereby guaranteeing to lower the [upsetting] incarceration rate. (while leaving the actual incidence rates untouched) Or here's another possible approach: we can change the designations we label crimes - e.g., we could declare that DWI Homicide isn't a Crime but rather it is a TPD (Temporary Physiological Disorder) ... thereby guaranteeing to lower/shorten the [upsetting] incarceration rate. (while leaving the incidence rate untouched) Or here's another approach: we could take the estimated 18% of crimes that are actually committed but never caught, and subtract that number from our Official Incarceration Rate.... thereby making our incarceration rates look better. Or here's another possible approach: we could have citizens stop committing so many damn crimes.... thereby guaranteeing to lower the [upsetting] incarceration rates.

      December 14, 2013 at 9:22 pm | Reply
      • war_monger

        A simple solution is to shoot more and release more. Then all will be peaceful.

        December 15, 2013 at 11:31 am |
  8. John McAuliff

    In point of fact in cooperation with Cardinal Ortega, Cuba freed all of its prisoners of conscience two years ago. The US barely acknowledged it and certainly did not relax the embargo.

    Since then, several people have been imprisoned who are categorized as political by Amnesty International. Have we proposed that they be released at the same time as Alan Gross in exchange for the four imprisoned Cubans Havana regards as victims of a politically motivated prosecution and court system?

    December 14, 2013 at 12:20 pm | Reply
    • Quinton

      Your posts plus those of Joseph and matslats above are the most intelligent ones I've seen here yet, John. This proves that not everyone here has been afflicted with the right-wing, anti-Cuban "affluenza" mental virus as that 16 year old in Fort Worth, TX has been!

      December 14, 2013 at 1:09 pm | Reply
  9. rightospeak

    Cuba should have been CUBA LIBRE long ago.. The Wall Street Capital put Castro in power and the sanctions kept him in power that long so that some people would make money on this bogeyman.
    High time for a change and not by Communist oligarchy stealing all the wealth of Cuba. There seems to be double stealing of countries' wealth by introducing Communism . One by introduction of Communism , plunder and slavery. later by having the Communist Mafia sell the country and get rich off it

    December 14, 2013 at 3:08 pm | Reply
    • WERTWERT32452345

      Gee rightospeak, did the Mafia inspire or pay you to post the above? It sure looks that way! Between the U.S. government and the Mafia, it's nothing short of a miracle that Cuba managed to retain it's national sovereignty over the last 50 plus years! Let's all hope and pray that when it comes to Cuba, neither the U.S. government nor the Mafia prevails!

      December 14, 2013 at 9:10 pm | Reply
  10. gotta idea

    Lets deport ted cruz and his father. The cubans in america need to all go back. Miami would be a better place. Viva cuba my butt. Another banana republic judt like haiti, jamaica, dominican, etc. And you all seem surprised. Deport zakaria too. I am sure there is a big cell a gitmo for him

    December 14, 2013 at 3:54 pm | Reply
  11. cjygudwin

    No change on our end until something really changes in Cuba. So far nothing has. Zero political freedom and prisons still full of government opponents. Cuba remains a brutal police state of the billionaire Castro family. And many risk their lives each year to escape Cuba. It remains an open-air prison.

    December 14, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Reply
  12. SixDegrees

    When Obama met Raul Castro, he should have jammed his hand into his chest and ripped out his still-beating heart. And eaten it.

    Shaking hands just made him look weak in comparison.

    December 14, 2013 at 5:01 pm | Reply
    • banasy©


      December 14, 2013 at 5:35 pm | Reply
    • Mark P.

      Kano wins! Fatality!

      December 14, 2013 at 7:08 pm | Reply
    • Quinton

      Thank you, SixDegrees. I see that you too have been stricken with that new found mental disorder called "affluenza". It seems to be quite catchy these days!

      December 14, 2013 at 9:15 pm | Reply
  13. Maracahan

    Ever notice fareed will not allow them to use the disqus commenting system on his articles?

    December 14, 2013 at 5:23 pm | Reply
  14. Ricky

    Great commentary, Fareed!

    December 14, 2013 at 5:48 pm | Reply
  15. Joshua

    It's a lie to say capitalism always brings freedom. Look at Chile under General Pinichet or modern Russia with its oligarchs, anti-gay laws, and restrictions on free speech. Look at the US with the world's largest prison population and massive spying. Then look at democratic socialist Sweden, with its shrinking prisons and generous civil rights. Capitalism inevitably concentrates wealth and power (and freedom) into a tiny ruling class at the top of the hierarchy. While Cuba isn't capitalist, it certainly isn't socialist either because it has the same hierarchy and concentrated power as a corporation, but more brutal. True human freedom can only come about by smashing capitalism and replacing it with a democratic, worker-run economy, aka "socialism" before Stalin ruined the word.

    December 14, 2013 at 6:07 pm | Reply
    • steven

      Russian democracy died in 2000. You should keep up with the times.

      December 14, 2013 at 6:28 pm | Reply
  16. Jamie Estevez mean neo-Western imperialism, or Western Corporate takeover of Cuba. That's what it would be and that's probably what will happen once the Castro brothers are out of the picture. Will it be better for Cuba? I doubt it. Not that I am a champion of communism, but I think Cuba would be better off staying within at least a quasi-socialist economy where key industries were still controlled by the state. Otherwise they might endure a collapse and pillage by Western corporations not unlike Russia went through in the 90's.

    December 14, 2013 at 6:29 pm | Reply
    • minnie mouse

      Not "might" endure a corporate pillage – more likely "guaranteed" to endure a corporate pillage

      December 14, 2013 at 8:16 pm | Reply
    • Maimonida

      Russian problem was corruption, too quick transition for people who did not understand how to be free, ever drunk and tennis playing President.
      And the fact that KGB/FSB was not reformed and rehired.

      It does not mean that Cuba should go Russian way

      December 15, 2013 at 1:13 am | Reply
  17. Reynaldo Cobo

    SIR U KNOW SO LITTLE ABOUT Cuba and it's oppressive regime. WHAT changes are u talking about.after that infamous handshake have u been informed of the repression againts dissidents thru out the island? Please be moreinformed.

    December 14, 2013 at 6:50 pm | Reply
  18. jason

    The Queen of England is the longest serving head of state. At the time of his retirement, Fidel was the second longest.

    December 14, 2013 at 6:55 pm | Reply
  19. hih

    This guy always thinks something needs changing

    December 14, 2013 at 7:37 pm | Reply
  20. minnie mouse

    Wasn't unbridled capitalism and its damaging wealth imbalance the very reason why Cubans rebelled and eventually ended up with Castro, for better or for worse? (or have I remembered my history lesson incorrectly) If so, why would Cubans be interested in returning to that set-up? (unless they are too young -or- too desperate to remember their history accurately) If not contained with common-sense and population-protecting regulations, capitalism can be dangerous because it is like a bulimic snake that continues to gorge unstopped and gobbling up those who get in its way, leaving only the snake owners to benefit. (That's why its referred to as unbridled.)

    December 14, 2013 at 8:12 pm | Reply
  21. kingofhearts

    America is the greatest county in the world. If it wasn't, people wouldn't be breaking down doors to live here, or trying so hard to harm, bruise, or deface the country.

    December 14, 2013 at 8:23 pm | Reply
  22. kingofhearts

    It is not up to us to take free will, and dictate what it should or shouldn't be doing. Man deserves to make its own moral decisions. It's God's job to sort it out, but phuckking Raul Suck My Nutz Castro, or the phhucking Chinese.

    December 14, 2013 at 8:27 pm | Reply
  23. Reformolution


    December 14, 2013 at 8:51 pm | Reply
  24. Max

    The best way to screw the Cuba is to find a way for Obama to be president there.

    December 14, 2013 at 8:53 pm | Reply
  25. wastedstate

    50yrs of sanctions and the real loser is the u.s.a., you sacrificed the state of Florida,overrun with so much voilent crime and street gangs, foreigners now avoid the place like the plague.

    December 14, 2013 at 9:28 pm | Reply
  26. EdL

    What a stupid question: has our embargo against Cuba worked? We can ask this after our 50+ year embargo has been in place? We believe we have the right to decide what type government Cuba should have and what leader/s they should have. I wonder what Cuba believes what type of government the U.S. should have and who should its leader/s be.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:20 pm | Reply
  27. Name*Jean Clelland-Morin

    Considering the pressure by BigBullyUS for years, Cuba has done pretty well. Capitalism has done it's damage in the US. Cuba doesn't need capitalism.

    December 14, 2013 at 10:47 pm | Reply
  28. Crystal

    Don't other countries trade with Cuba? Even so, the Cuban Exile Community in the United States has a lot of influence and they do not want to see us support a repressive communist state.

    December 15, 2013 at 12:07 am | Reply
  29. Maimonida

    I think the best way to open Cuba is Chinese way. Let them try fruits of free market, open economy, create middle class. Then maybe they will be less eager to engage in repressions and Commie ideology.
    After all Cuba is not the worst regime in the world. There is always Russia, North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia. And US is less aggressive towards them

    December 15, 2013 at 1:09 am | Reply
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