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Is democracy next for Cuba? Don’t count on it.

Is democracy next for Cuba? Don’t count on it.
July 21, 2015

The U.S. this week took another step toward normalizing its relationship
with Cuba, with the State Department reopening its embassy in Havana.
The conventional wisdom in foreign policy circles is that this is long
overdue. Fair enough — but if you believe that opening up to Cuba will
somehow lead to a democratic revolution, then you might be smoking
something.

The rationale for Cuba’s decades of isolation, which included a strict
trade embargo, was twofold. The first was the Cold War: Cuba, with a
strategic position off the coast of Florida, was allied with the Soviet
Union. Memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis died hard. The second was
that the pressure of an embargo might cause the regime to crumble,
paving the way for democracy.

(A third, largely unspoken reason was that the squeeze on Cuba had a lot
to do with the electoral politics of Florida, a key swing state with an
influential Cuban-American community. Make no mistake, the Obama
administration’s decision to switch course also has to do with this
community, whose younger generation tends to feel less passionately
about the embargo.)

The logic against the first reason goes like this: The Cold War is over
— and the Castros are still around. Yes, Cuba is still authoritarian,
but the U.S. deals with plenty of authoritarian countries with an open
mind (and wallet).

There’s a lot of merit to that view.

The simple fact of the matter is that there’s no hard and fast rule
about how the U.S. deals with authoritarian regimes. Why be open with
Vietnam and put the squeeze on Myanmar, which is (nearly) next door? And
let’s not even start with the mishmash of policies the U.S. backs in the
Middle East, where it supports strongmen in some places and democracies
in others. There isn’t a universal rule we can apply.

We see this debate over and over again. On the one hand, sanctions do
get regimes to turn a new leaf — just look at Myanmar. On the other
hand, sanctions don’t hurt the regime insiders, who will do fine
whatever happens, but the ordinary people who have no say in the matter.

Republicans probably have a point that the Obama administration drove
too soft a bargain, and in particular did not insist enough on greater
political concessions from the Castros. But that doesn’t affect the
overall question of whether the U.S. should normalize relations with Cuba.

If you want to say that the embargo wasn’t advancing U.S. strategic
interests, that it was hurting a lot of ordinary people needlessly, and
that normalizing relations will make them and their families better off,
that’s fine. But if you pretend that lifting the embargo can achieve
democratization, which was the other reason the embargo existed in the
first place, then you have another thing coming.

The narrative that economic freedom necessarily leads to a flowering of
political freedom is one that we’ve heard a lot. But at least in the
past few decades, we’ve seen the opposite happen. The case in point, of
course, is China, which shows that a decent job at economic management
and at curtailing corruption will enable an autocracy to live on.

Indeed, improved technology, one of the benefits of greater economic
freedom, makes it a lot easier for autocrats to keep tabs on people and
to nip democratic movements in the bud. What’s more, if you ensure that
the business class and the political class are symbiotic, as is the case
in China, business interests will often pull the lever for autocracy
rather than democracy.

The Castros are still solidly in power. They have a gang of cronies who
have an interest in keeping the show going. Many fruits of the new
relationship with the United States will accrue to regular people, but
many will accrue to the authoritarian power elite. They can buy
computers and routers that monitor people’s emails, and shut down speech
and political organization as well as they always have.

So yes, the embargo may not have served U.S. interests. It may have hurt
ordinary Cubans. But lifting the embargo won’t do anything for democracy.

Source: Is democracy next for Cuba? Don’t count on it. –
http://theweek.com/articles/567363/democracy-next-cuba-dont-count

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