Did Obama Just Reset the Entire Western Hemisphere?

For Five Decades, the U.S. Has Obsessed Over a Small Caribbean Island at the Expense of Its Policy Toward All of Latin America

I was absorbed in a project Wednesday morning when out of the corner of my eye I started seeing references to big news out of Cuba in various incoming email subject lines. “That’s it, he’s finally kicked the bucket,” I thought as I clicked on my browser to do a news dive, assuming Fidel Castro had died.

That no other big news out of Cuba seemed conceivable is a sign of how tediously stuck the narrative of the U.S.-Cuba telenovela has seemed in recent years. Our Cold War antagonism with the Castro brothers has been a blend of Waiting for Godot and Bill Murray’s classic Groundhog Day. Until Wednesday, that is, when the bold headlines I clicked on announced the restoration of diplomatic ties with Cuba.

The unexpected and historic deal between presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro, brokered by Canada and the Vatican, was announced in Washington with unmitigated candor. President Obama conceded that our outdated approach toward Cuba these past five decades has failed to advance U.S. interests (and this is putting it mildly). It isn’t often you hear a political leader, let alone a president, basically say: “This thing that we’ve been doing forever isn’t working.” Bravo.

It isn’t often you hear a political leader, let alone a president, basically say: “This thing that we’ve been doing forever isn’t working.”

The policy was more than a failure. It was the glaring exception to America’s self-assured, capitalistic, beacon-on-the-hill approach to the world. By preserving an embargo and travel bans against the island all these years (which Obama still needs congressional action to lift), we have prevented Cuba from confronting the full shock and awe of America’s seductive commercial and cultural influence.

This was out of character. We don’t shy away from engaging Communist dictatorships halfway around the world—like China and Vietnam—because we don’t like their system. On the contrary, we seek to engage them more precisely because we believe, correctly, that American culture is the best antidote for their people’s lack of freedom. Even during the apartheid regime in South Africa, in the 1980s, conservative Republicans were advocating for “constructive engagement” with that nation, to have American companies, goods, and cultural imports undermine an unjust system. And Cuba, with its close proximity and historical ties, would be far more susceptible to this theory.

Iran and North Korea, like Cuba until this week, are members of the pariah nation club and face sanctions meant to isolate them. But those sanctions are different. They aren’t imposed by us alone simply because we don’t like their domestic political systems. Rather, they’re imposed by a group of countries concerned about those nations’ efforts to destabilize their regions and develop weapons of mass destruction. Cuba long ago ceased falling into that category.

As it happened, the greatest beneficiary of the longstanding U.S. embargo intended to harm the odious Castro regime in Havana has been none other than the odious Castro regime. So long as the rulers of the tropical Gulag could portray themselves as the victims of the vengeful imperio yanquí, they had a convenient scapegoat for all their revolution’s shortcomings and excesses. The sanctions have helped them keep the island cut off from the outside world and its pesky trade winds of information, online connectivity, and democratizing influences. It’s not surprising that in the past, when a thaw in relations appeared imminent, it was Cuba that repeatedly sabotaged progress at the 11th hour—most recently in 2009, when the regime first arrested Alan Gross, the USAID contractor charged with spying (and released as part of this week’s deal).

For the Castro brothers, who have bedeviled 11 U.S. presidents, playing victim to the American imperialists while being propped up by foreign sugar daddies has provided them with the best of both worlds. Until now. One reason they are agreeing to end the Cold War with el imperio is that they have run out of sugar daddies. Venezuela, which succeeded the Soviet Union as the Castros’ main benefactor, is now a basket case, devastated by years of mismanagement and plummeting oil prices. Meanwhile, modest economic reforms introduced by the Havana regime have failed to accomplish much. So the Castros are recognizing that the game is up, and that things need to change, especially if they want their revolution to outlive them.

But it won’t. Absent the Cold War, Marxism is doomed in Cuba.

Cuba’s people will be the main beneficiaries of more engagement with the United States, but normal relations with Cuba also will allow the United States to reset ties with the rest of Latin America. For far too long, partly as a consequence of it being an extension of Florida electoral politics, Cuban policy has claimed a disproportionate amount of attention in Washington. Cuba has been a thorn in the side of our relations with the rest of the hemisphere, providing people from Mexico to Argentina with a pretext to view the United States with suspicion. Even friends of the United States in the hemisphere have long been puzzled, and frustrated, by the extent to which Washington obsesses over the small Caribbean island at the expense of a broader strategic engagement with Latin America.

The consolidation of democracy in the Western Hemisphere has been a welcome trend in recent decades. Once Cuba can no longer claim to be a victim of U.S. imperialism, the ability of the continent’s revolutionary left to threaten this democratic consolidation will further recede. It should become easier for Latin America’s democracies to start pressing Havana to live up to its regional commitments to respect human and civil rights–since it will no longer come across as piling onto America’s bullying. And if that doesn’t secure freedoms on the island, the airlifting of Coca-Cola, Hollywood movies, and smartphones (hello Facebook!) should do the job.

Andrés Martinez is editorial director of Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Trade Winds column. He is also a professor of journalism at Arizona State University.
Primary Editor: Joe Mathews. Secondary Editor: Sarah Rothbard.
*Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Larry Downing.


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