President Obama’s overture to Cuba – reversing a staple of American diplomacy of more than fifty years – fits the pattern of his conduct of foreign policy since he took office. He has routinely courted enemies and alienated friends. The latter approach – think Israel, Britain, Poland, the Czech Republic, etc. – is peculiar both in statecraft and in life. The former approach at least, in theory, has the merit of fulfilling a dictum of our Sages: “Who is powerful? He who turns his enemy into a friend” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan, Ch. 23).
That is in theory. In practice, it is laudable only if the enemy actually becomes a friend, as opposed to remaining an enemy exploiting the weaknesses of the moving party to strengthen itself, enrich its rulers and further enslave its people. Judging by the early statements from the Cuban dictators, only a dewy-eyed optimist or a person of the political left who is ideologically comfortable with Marxism would anticipate any success here. Obama’s rationale – “if something hasn’t worked for fifty years, it is time to try something different” – begs the question: what exactly hasn’t worked? If the goal is to isolate Cuba to force political liberalization, then Cuba has been isolated, is impoverished, and is not self-sufficient. Every inducement to change is in place, if the dictators so desired. But political liberalization has always been a pipedream, as dictators rarely need to be responsive to the needs of the citizenry, and especially not when the regime’s opponents are regularly jailed for long periods of time for even mild protests.
The Cuban government has certainly expressed an interest in American dollars and investment, but it is farfetched to conclude that any of that bounty will filter down to the average citizen. In any event, rogues find it relatively easy to wait out a sanctions regime, and in recent years have dangled spurious concessions in front of Obama’s diplomats to successfully induce their dismantlement (Iran, Russia). There is no reason why this should be different and every reason why it should be exactly the same – same game, same tactics, same outcome.
That being said, what exactly is the value of a boycott? It seems to have worked only with the apartheid governments of South Africa and Rhodesia but those were unique situations – minority governments suppressing the majority population. (Few seem to care that, at least in Zimbabwe, blacks are persecuted more today living under the Mugabe regime than under the white government.) Otherwise, boycotts are usually not successful, and not only because they create an underground market for needed goods and services. I have seen Cuban cigars for sale in Canada, Denmark, Russia and Israel. Most of the world’s countries do not seem to be bothered by the excesses of the Cuban regime. Even the United States exhibits selective outrage against Communist dictatorships, doing business with Russia and China for decades while shunning Cuba. Certainly the human rights records of those two countries inspired Cuba for much of the last half-century, and America’s relaxation of sanctions against Iran has enabled big business to restart relationships with that human rights-abusing, Holocaust-denying and nuclear bomb-building government.
So, why was Cuba singled out?
A number of possibilities exist. Cuba under Batista was an American ally and a magnet for investment (especially mob investment). The loss of that capital surely grated. Cuba is also a scant 90 miles from Florida, and the presence of a Communist outpost so close to US soil was always a cause for concern. Of course, the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961 gave the US a black eye and the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 brought the US and the Soviet Union to the brink of a nuclear exchange, both of which surely underscored Cuba’s negative image in the American eye. And the Cuban émigré community is a potent political force, especially in Florida, and consists of people who suffered enormously to other US nemeses in that part of the world,under Castro. Many have relatives who are still stuck in that island prison. Those reasons are surely valid but do not explain the shunning of Cuba as compared to other US nemeses in that part of the world, such as Venezuela in the last 20 years.
There is another possibility: American foreign policy has always been a bit schizophrenic, in part because of the unresolved clash between the realists and the moralists. There has always been a moralistic streak in US diplomacy, which represents the highest aspirations of the American character. This country – until recently – always tended to embrace fellow democracies and other nations that shared core American values. Those countries were showered with support and embraced with friendship. But, by the same token, the realists recognized that no country has permanent allies or friends but only permanent interests, and the promotion of those interests has frequently demanded the maintenance of relations with some unsavory governments.
This type of diplomacy required “holding one’s nose” while doing business, and encompassed dictators across the globe, from Latin America to the Pacific to Africa. It was best exemplified by a statement attributed to FDR and referring to Nicaragua’s Somoza (the first): “Somoza may be an SOB but he’s our SOB.” Needless to say, that quote – and sentiment – has been applied to many other dictators who have been allied with America.
Such an approach is not completely unreasonable. The person or nation that wishes to associate only with the completely righteous will find itself lonely and isolated. It is unrealistic to expect the complete isolation of every scoundrel. On the other hand, that association will inevitably drain the good character out of even the most resistant entity. (Targum Yonatan, explaining the injunction in the Decalogue against murder, admonishes Jews “not to be friends or partners with murderers.” There is a moral price that is paid for those relationships; often, evil itself becomes less horrific and the innocent suffer even more.)
Furthermore, there is an argument to be made for non-interference by outsiders in another country’s domestic affairs (if only the world would leave Israel alone and not become apoplectic every time a porch is built in Jerusalem!), but that too can be taken to an extreme. That attitude would justify the world’s disregard of the Holocaust in its time, Stalin’s and Mao’s genocide in their own countries, and of course even lesser abuses of any country’s citizens. That would be unconscionable.
How then does the US retain relations with some evildoers and simultaneously maintain its self-image as defender of liberty, freedom and other moral norms? Perhaps – and this is pure speculation – by singling out some countries – like Cuba – for “special” harsh treatment as an affirmation of American values. Is it fair? Not really. But such is far better than turning into an amoral entity like Europe that for decades sought to sell out Israel for Arab oil and is presently just selling Israel out, period. Even paying lip service to core values has lasting significance.
It is a stretch to say that Obama’s planned recognition of Cuba is designed to “open up” Cuba so that the average citizen is lifted out of poverty, or that the air of liberty will suddenly waft through that Communist jail and transform the society, or even that a post-Castro Cuba will find its way back into the free world. Cuba is not destitute because of the US boycott; there is nothing marketed here that Cubans cannot import from the rest of the world – Latin America, Asia and Europe. Cuba is destitute because its rulers enrich themselves at the expense of the citizenry, and jail anyone with an untoward thought. Ceasing the boycott while keeping the same corrupt system of government will help the elites and not the people.
Many remember the Cuban boat people who risked their lives fleeing to US shores on rickety boats. The test of this relationship will be whether or not those who wish to leave are allowed to leave, those incarcerated for their opposition to Castro will be released, and those American dollars invested in Cuba better the material lives of those who stay.
Why then is Obama doing this? Because he can. He is a man much more comfortable with the rhetoric and ideology of the Third World, and sees the American boycott of Cuba as a relic of America’s imperialist past. Indeed, the moral preening of US diplomacy has, in recent years, only been exercised against Israel. One example suffices: a recent study reported that 96% of those killed in US bombing raids in Syria have been civilians, but Israel was forced to stand down from Operation Protective Edge in Gaza because roughly 30% of those killed were civilians. And, yet, Israel was accused by the State Department of “not doing enough” to avoid civilian casualties. Go figure.
Obama has sought to re-orient American foreign policy and the outreach to Cuba is part of that. The good news – if there is any good news – is that this reorientation is unlikely to be continued by Obama’s successor because it is empowering many objectionable agents. The bad news is that, by then, the power of Iran and the militarism of Russia, among others, will be very difficult to reverse.
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