June 12th, 2014
05:06 PM ET

Time to rethink 'concession' mentality on Cuba

By Ric Herrero, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Ric Herrero is the executive director of #CubaNow, a Miami-based democracy advocacy group. The views expressed are the writer’s own.

Late last month, 44 former high-level U.S. officials and thought leaders, including prominent members of the Cuban-American community, signed a letter to President Barack Obama urging him to revise our Cuba policy to allow Americans to better engage with the island’s growing civil society, particularly its fledgling entrepreneurial sector.

The logic behind the letter is simple: by empowering the Cuban people with more access to U.S. contacts and resources, they can create greater freedoms for themselves.

Unfortunately, that concept appears to be too difficult to understand for those who depend on keeping things just the way they are. Almost immediately, the predictable responses began to flow from a tag team of shrill hardliners in Washington DC and Havana, all trying to protect the status quo.

In Washington, the pro-embargo lobby – or what is left of them – began to mischaracterize the letter as a “concession” to the regime, and cherry picked quotes by some dissidents and exile leaders to make it seem as if there is widespread opposition to increasing support for Cuban civil society.

In Havana, the supposed beneficiaries of these “concessions” reacted in equally predictable fashion. As they’ve done every time there’s been a potential thaw, the Cuban regime’s hardliners are going out of their way to thwart political momentum in the U.S. for a new approach. Let’s face it, one of the regime’s favorite strategies is to blame American policy for all of their own shortcomings. It has helped them stay in power. If they wanted better relations, they would release Alan Gross, or stop beating up the Ladies in White, or cease detaining pro-rights activists, or loosen customs and import restrictions. They haven’t, of course, because like the hardliners here, they want everything their way.

Both sides have something else in common – they will twist anything to fit their view of the world, even when it makes no sense. Washington hardliners are quick to pose for photo ops or send press releases praising the bravery of Cuban activists. Yet by denying those activists real support, and refusing to accept that civil society needs economic resources to thrive, they are doing them a disservice.

To suggest that an increase in the flow of contacts and resources to the Cuban people is a “concession” to the Castro brothers plays directly into the hands of the most unyielding forces within the Cuban government. As WLRN’s Tim Padgett noted last month, "Incredibly, [hardliners] somehow convinced themselves that denying Cuba’s fledgling entrepreneurs more seed money, cell phones and sage advice – that keeping them in the micro-economic Middle Ages – is the best way to change Cuba." It isn’t.

The “concessions” talking point might be a cute sound bite, but it’s wrong. For decades, the American people have been force-fed the baseless notion that any reform of Cuba policy, no matter how practical, is tantamount to rewarding the regime for its iron grip over the island.

In fact, easing the embargo to support the island’s nascent entrepreneurial class puts more pressure on the Cuban regime to respect human rights because they have a stronger independent private sector and civil society with which to contend. And if the argument from hardliners is that we should not support entrepreneurs because there can be no private sector without rights, then that would mean we couldn’t support dissidents either. We must do both.

Dissidents are battling to create a better and more inclusive future where their families and fellow Cubans can be free. They do so in simple but powerful ways – a peaceful street protest, a petition tens of thousands strong, a blog post, an independent media outlet. The same logic applies to self-employed entrepreneurs, and to every single Cuban seeking to increase their independence from the state, whether they are a hairdresser, a computer programmer, or a taxi driver.

Entrepreneurs may not be allowed to legally incorporate, or to have foreigners legally “invest” in their businesses, but they are fighting every day to gain these rights. How? By using remittances, mostly from the United States, as seed capital. By hiring and paying salaries far above those of state workers. By taking government officials to court over zoning, licensing and property disputes. They are conjuring every creative interpretation of Cuban law to scale their businesses or press for new categories of self-employment that were previously prohibited. We should encourage that, not stand in its way.

After 54 years it’s time to call a spade a shovel. The only real concession the United States can make to the Cuban regime is to continue to treat Castro’s favorite propaganda tool as a sacred cow. We can do better.

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Topics: Cuba

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