Friending Cuba

“The time is ripe for change in Cuba.” Many have made this claim before, and many have been dead wrong. Indeed, the Cuban Castro regime, having survived to see ten U.S. presidents come and go, outlasted an embargo for over fifty years while maintaining its communist-authoritarian integrity. His rule has inspired, as of late, a spate of rather pessimistic literature. There is great doubt as to the ability of a democratic movement to come about in Cuba, much less one that will come about in any way beneficial to the U.S.. Rather, many Cuba-watchers at best see the nation turning into a little China at best, and rebounding and plugging forward into eternity as a legitimized communist power on our doorstep at worst. Yet it is hard to imagine a set of circumstances so amenable to U.S. interests in Cuba as those now existing. And with the right executive maneuvering by Obama, it is not hard to imagine both immediate and long-term gains for the Cubans (mainly liberalizers) and the U.S. in the domestic and international spheres. A wild claim, to be sure. But in these pages allow the author to paint a picture of the current state of affairs in Cuba, the openings they create, the actions taken by the U.S. in response, those we should be taking, and why.

First and foremost, the Cuban economy is in absolute shambles. There has been a 40 percent decrease in the value of nickel (Cuba’s main export) and a serious decline in tourism (Cuba’s main industry) , coupled with a 41 percent increase in imports (not commensurate with an increase in exports). To add insult to injury, three successive hurricanes in 2008 inflicted approximately $10 billion in damages. As a result, Cuba’s estimated growth for 2009 has fallen from 6 percent to a measly 1.7 percent and extreme austerity measures have gone into effect. The state has given up free lunch canteens at workplaces, instituted limitations on air conditioning, electricity and cooking, and has nearly run out of toilet paper. Generally when a state runs out of toilet paper, that’s when the shit hits the fans. As of yet unable to tap into its own offshore oil reserves and highly dependent on Venezuelan subsidies (especially of oil—they took on average 94,000 free barrels a day in 2008) , the Cuban state is on the brink, especially when one considers that the Venezuelan handouts cannot last forever given the effect of the economic crisis and falling price of oil on Venezuela. Granted, Cuba has weathered such austerity before as in 1990 when it lost its $4.3 billion yearly subsidy from the USSR. But as of now and for the foreseeable future, the simultaneous collision of recession, corruption, the inherent unproductive and failed collectivization in a communist system, and the failure of handouts have left Cuba in an unprecedented weakened state.

Throw into the mix the massive increase in civil society in Cuba over the past twenty years and things get even worse for the Castro regime. As Carl Gershman and Orlando Gutierrez so brilliantly argued this past January in the Journal of Democracy, in the case of all past opportunities in Cuba, there was no force capable of standing up to the Castros. Even as late as 1994, Cuba was able to disperse protests with relative ease; this pattern, on a shallow viewing, persists: as of January 2009 Raul Castro had a force of about 340,000 communist youth at his disposal for the intimidation and indoctrination of the population. But despite crackdowns on anti-government protests, the number of anti-Castro, pro-democratic and pacifist groups in Cuba has grown at an alarming rate over the past two decades. And cracking down on them has become increasingly difficult and decreasingly meaningful. Despite raids on illicit libraries, 135 known and operational facilities carrying banned books have come into being with a continual circulation of a quarter million regular patrons. And in the case of the arrest of Porno para Ricardo’s anti-regime front-man, Gorki Aguila, the government was unable in August 2008 to prevent mass demonstrations for his release and was eventually forced to give him an extremely lenient sentence unbefitting his seditious crime under the nation’s legal code. Still, the military powers of the Castros are impressive. Note that prominent dissident Oswaldo Paya’s Varela project (a legal petition for democratic reform) has only managed to gather 40,000 signatures in a nation of 11 million in over seven years of circulation, mainly due to government presence and intimidation. In such a state, libraries close quickly. Protests still get broken up.

Yet the regime has proven itself to be utterly incapable of dealing with the use of technology to foster anti-communist civil society. Using memory sticks and computers, the rich can now buy the cheaper models manufactured and sold on the black market, which means dissidents have been able to leak news onto the Internet, even in mainstream media. “In one case,” wrote Gershman and Gutierrez, “a video of students at the computer science university confronting National Assembly president Ricardo Alarcón about economic injustices and restrictions on personal freedoms found its way onto the BBC and CNN.” Additionally, spearheaded by Yoani Sanchez, Cuba has produced a vibrant blogger community operating against government regulation. Since its inception, it has only grown, even as the government clamps down on Internet availability (access was consistent at 9.4 percent for quite some time but decreased to 4.6 percent in November 2008) . Despite all attempts, the government has discovered no efficient means of monitoring and/or restricting the black market and Internet dissent. And so the rabble grows.

At the same time, there’s a new sheriff in Havana, and his name is Raúl. Echoing many, it is only fair to admit that Raúl is almost synonymous with Fidel in his ideology and his use of force. However, Raúl is nowhere near as competent as his brother was. To legitimize himself as the inheritor of Fidel’s throne, Raúl has enacted various reforms—some simply cosmetic, such as opening unaffordable hotels with overpriced Internet access to a poor population, but some more real, like the granting of the right to privately develop agricultural lands. He has also replaced key members of the party with his own personal team of followers, leading to his ousting of the prominent Felipe Roque and Carlos Lage, sparking wild speculations as to what they could have done. Regardless of the cause, this act and other reform actions have bred, “intensifying debate, if not infighting, within the regime.” Take as an example a recent letter, sent using government computers and Internet access, protesting the appointment of the new Arts Minister, which was met with sympathetic dissent from within the party, but which inspired no response.

Raúl, for all his gusto, is indeed so weak that when he attempted this past May to fight blogger dissent by restricting Cuban Internet usage in tourist hotels, he was forced to repeal his own ordinance when Sanchez raised a racket. In her words, as quoted in the Foreign Service Journal, “Yes, they cede when you push back; they have to amend their plans when we citizens raise our voices and the international media hears the echoes.” It is no mean task, forcing the Castros back on a decision. Considering the success of dissenters, Raul’s own weakness, party dissent, the growth of civil society, the economic downfall, and the simple fact that every survey conducted in Cuba in the last several years shows that the majority of citizens (save those over 60 years old who were involved in the revolution) support a transition away from a Castro regime, the bulk favoring a transition towards democracy, it is not hard to see that the time is ripe for American involvement.

President Barack Obama has taken swift actions on this matter, like opening restrictions on Cuban-American family visits and remittances to Cuba and allowing contracts and sales of electronics and communications equipment to Cuba. But these steps have been too small and halting. The administration has expressed a will to wait for tit-for-tat reforms from Cuba before moving forward. However, this will not happen. Rather, Obama must look at Cuba and realize that it resembles the Iberian peninsula in 1970s: a beleaguered and divided place under authoritarian rule highly dependent on tourism and unused to foreign viewpoints, surrounded by democratic neighbors and hosting a pluralistic, dissenting society with an existing democratic tradition and movement. With this in mind, Obama should drop conditionality, immediately open travel to Cuba to all Americans, and offer U.S. access to the Internet free of the caveat that Cuba refrain from attempts to monitor and/or restrict the flow of information on the Internet.

Consider the benefits of opening tourism. Some have argued that such a move would only line the pockets of the government and forestall the economic collapse of the regime. They have also argued that current tourism (2.4 million tourists flooded through Cuba in 2008 and approximately 15 million have visited in the last ten years, mainly from the E.U. and Canada) has not been allowed to interact with the general population and has, as such, had little effect on Cuban politics. Consider, though, that Raúl’s ostensibly cosmetic reforms now allow Cubans to move among tourists in their locations. Additionally, opening the country to American tourism would, conservatively, add 3 million more tourists per year to the list—a number hard to regulate in a sudden burst.

This all suggests that, as was the case in Iberia almost forty years ago, there will be increased contact with foreign ideas, varied viewpoints, and decreased ability for the state to act with impunity in putting down dissent (so as not to lose its tourism, the cornerstone of its economy). Additionally, tourism jobs tend to be the best paid in Cuba (garnished by illegal but common bonuses provided clearly and directly by non-Cuban employers) , breeding an affinity for Westerners and their culture and helping to alleviate the economic concerns of the nation. This form of poverty alleviation fuses the Cuban economy to U.S. tourism while spreading anti-communist ideas and freeing social space for Cubans to direct their ire against their illiberal, underpaying government. Also, with a porous border comes a larger black market. The hardship of gaining a license to operate a business means that to accommodate increased tourism, black market business will have to increase accordingly, thus increasing the speed and ease of moving illicit communications technologies, publications, ideas, and/or other materials across borders, while allowing an opening to address human and drug trafficking issues with the Cuban regime.

There is already massive support for such a move—a bill allowing this travel passed the House and Senate in 2003, but was dropped due to a threatened Bush veto. A similar bill, backed prominently by Senator Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), will be coming onto the legislative agenda shortly. And even the usually die-hard opposition in Miami now agrees (with 59 percent approval) that the travel ban must go. But this move will not be enough on its own.

Currently, only a small fraction of the population has access to the dissident views expressed on the Internet. A whopping 72.4 percent of the population gets all of its news from the state media. As argued by Dr. Andy Gomez of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies, this control of ideas is key in enforcing acceptance of an illegitimate and failed system by creating “institutions, collective memories, and facts or explanations of how the world operates as part of a cogent national cultural policy.” However, Gomez argues, and the experience of 1970s Iberia confirms, that the increase of access to dissenting views, especially via modern communications mediums, does more than anything else to destruct this acceptance and usher in debate, dissent and democratization. Therefore, it is vital to expand Internet access to the majority of Cuban citizens and to do so by offering to provide Internet connectivity to the Cubans without caveats.

This solution (allowing Internet access without restrictions on Internet monitoring) may seem a little counterintuitive, but hear this: the Cubans have openly rejected such a caveat and, despite the higher cost and spottier connection, are currently in negotiating a deal with Venezuela over a 1,500 km fiber optic link set to become operational in 2010. Granted by Chavez, the link will inevitably come with a host of tips and tools for monitoring Internet traffic. However, another line, only 110 miles long running from Miami, is being constructed by Miami’s TeleCuba. Given Cuba’s economic condition, the Cuban government would surely accept this cheaper, more stable Miami contract were it not for the fact that TeleCuba stipulates that it comes only with promises that Cuba will not restrict Internet access.

But, as has been seen in the case of Sanchez, the Cuban government is ill-equipped and far too poor to effectively monitor the Internet. Additionally, years of experience with Chinese censors has given rise to the development of a number of easily-accessible, untraceable, and effective evasive maneuvers and software to combat censorship. As a result, Cubans will gain access to a multiplicity of ideas while the government scrambles and fails to block the access. If China consistently fails to monitor its Internet with a massive, high-tech bureau, then what chance does Raul Castro really have?

One might see this as the U.S. giving in. However, waiting for the Castros to budge is pointless and only opens the doors for less desirable powers (like China, currently courting the Castros) to step in and provide less desirable outcomes for the U.S. in Cuba. Acting now, Cuba may be able to take credit for the benefits it brings its nation in terms of salaries and goods via tourism and IT, as did Spain in the 1970s. But it must, as such, take responsibility for the spread of anti-communist ideals within its own borders and would be hard-pressed to step back on such measures. It could not harass the United States for these gestures, free of strings as they would be (although they can try, as did Fidel by claiming that Obama’s increased travel for Cuban Americans has caused a swine flu outbreak in Cuba) , and it must live with the consequences. Such moves, then, effectively play upon the minor changes made by Raul, the weakness within the government, the discontent and democratic civil societies indigenously generated in Cuba, the economic downturn. They will also preempt less desirable outcomes, such as a Venezuelan Internet connection. In this scenario, the U.S. does not just come out neutral, but instead benefits greatly.

First and foremost, this move saves America face at home and abroad—it appeases the international community, which has railed against the U.S.’s isolation of Cuba for decades now (this fall marked the 18th unequivocal condemnation of the embargo by the United Nations). At the same time, it does not force the U.S. to admit the failure of its Cuban policy and keeps the embargo as a tool that may be used, via repeals of restrictions (all possible by executive actions, contrary to what the Helms-Burton act may have led many to believe) as positive reinforcement for peaceful democratic transitions within the Cuban government—as opposed to negative reinforcement, throwing away the embargo because it hasn’t worked and an authoritarian government is still in place. The U.S. population, including Cuban Americans, also overwhelmingly support such measures , which would garner support and accomplishment for the beleaguered Obama administration and generate jobs in the communications and air travel sectors for Americans. Similarly, opening the borders would allow an influx of Cuban doctors (the Cuban foreign medical bridge is the most impressive in the world, with 25,000 doctors graduating in 2008 alone and over 185,000 doctors sent abroad since 1962). America, which foolishly rejected the aid of 1,600 Cuban doctors during Hurricane Katrina, would benefit immeasurably by welcoming foreign medical brigades—alleviating pressure on the American healthcare system, fostering positive relations with Cubans, and increasing the probability of defection of doctors to American citizenship (over 6,000 doctors have already defected in Miami due to indirect exposure). Indeed, it is hard to see a single downside to this arrangement, save that the transition to democracy in Cuba would not be instantaneous. Rather, it would be gradual and thus, in all probability, more stable, enduring and endogenous, just as it was in Spain and Portugal in the 1970s. Through two simple and practical steps, then, the United States can, with benefit rather than harm to its domestic and international image, initiate a controlled and positive path towards enduring democracy in Cuba, all by playing on the ideal and rare window opened in Cuba recently by a strange collusion of random factors. But the window will not stay open long. The time to act is now.