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Lies and Cuba

July 3, 2017

Implicit in American policy toward Cuba for at least the last 50 years is the proposition that the United States should foster Cuban democracy and the expansion of legal rights guaranteed to the Cuban people.

Donald Trump, announcing the re-imposition of some of the anti-Cuba measures that Barack Obama had relaxed, wholeheartedly endorsed that proposition. Curiously, Trump has explicitly rejected application of that proposition to American policy in the rest of the world.

In Saudi Arabia six weeks ago, President Trump proudly announced to authoritarian leaders assembled before him that the United States would not interfere in their domestic affairs:

“We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values — to pursue a better future for us all.”

Saudi Arabia itself is a brutally repressive regime. The country is run by a hereditary absolute monarchy; dissenters of any kind, including religious minorities, are not tolerated; political parties do not exist; free speech does not exist; criminal justice is medieval; and the female half of the citizenry is virtually enslaved to the male half.

Trump had no interest in punishing that repression, or even engaging the regime in dialog about it: “We are not here to tell other people how to live,” he said.

Trump has made clear his admiration for other authoritarian leaders: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Erdogan, for two examples – leaders of countries that rank 134th and 97th, respectively, out of 167 on the 2016 Democracy Index compiled by The Economist (the U.S. tied for 21st with Italy). Trump has shown no interest in democracy in those countries, or in the legal rights enjoyed by the people of those countries.

As a general matter, I agree that American policy should foster democracy in other countries, and should encourage expansion of individual rights in repressive countries, because I believe that spreading and strengthening liberal democracy around the world furthers American interests. So I certainly agree that American policy should foster Cuban democracy and should encourage the expansion of the rights of Cubans.

The much more difficult question is whether American sanctions foster Cuban democracy or expand Cubans’ individual rights. I see no evidence that sanctions have moved Cuba any closer to liberal democracy; the aging generation of 1950s revolutionaries remains firmly in charge. Economic sanctions have been in place for 57 years this month, so it’s a hard case to make that the American sanctions regime is well adapted to the goal of exporting liberal democracy to Cuba.

To me, the most aggravating part of Trump’s decision was his reversal of Obama’s decision to create a general license for Americans engaged in “people to people” travel to Cuba.

Federal law prohibits travel to Cuba generally, but states several exceptions. Before President Obama, an American who wanted to travel to Cuba under one of those exceptions had to apply for and obtain a federal license. Obama created a “general license” that applied to American travelers generally, without the need for each traveler to engage in the lengthy application process. Obama made clear that enforcement of the new rules would be light-handed.

Americans who visited Cuba under the relaxed Obama procedures only had to certify that they were traveling for educational purposes, specifically under the “people to people” exception to the travel sanctions. People to people travelers were required to engage in conversations with ordinary Cubans, and to keep records of those conversations for ten years. As promised, enforcement of those requirements was lax, and I would expect that compliance, at least with the record-keeping part, was also lax.

Announcing an end to the general license for people to people travel, President Trump asserted that American travel to Cuba benefits only the Cuban government. That was a lie.

In 2011, Cuban President Raul Castro legalized private enterprise for the first time since the revolution, and Cubans responded by starting small businesses everywhere. Cubans rent out private rooms, known as casas particulares. Private restaurants and souvenir shops have sprung up by the scores. Cigar vendors are ubiquitous. Artists sell their work from privately owned studios. Privately owned taxis – most famously those iconic 1950s American sedans – ply the streets.

I assume that the Cuban government taxes private income. But to claim that privately owned enterprise yields no benefit at all to the private owners is not just false, but illogical. If the Cuban government confiscated all private profits, there wouldn’t be any private enterprises in Cuba – yet there they are.

Private businesses support jobs for Cubans. The private restaurant owners no doubt keep a lot of the work in the family, but some must hire waiters and dishwashers. The bed and breakfast my spouse and I stayed in supported eight jobs – six full-time and two part-time.

Americans tend to be big tippers, and American credit cards are no good in Cuba, so American tips have been cash, mostly handed directly by the tipper to the tippee. In other words, even in government-owned hotels and restaurants, bars and clubs, taxis and tour guide services, American tourism benefits individual Cubans. I know American travelers who left gifts with their Cuban hosts – money as well as goods – and some sent additional gifts through other travelers who went later.

Ending what is by far the most popular means for American travel to Cuba, the general license for people to people travel, will end both the earned income and the largesse that American travelers have brought to Cuba under the Obama rules.

I’ve argued twice before that if we say we want democracy for Cuba, then we have to respect the wishes of Cubans – and Cubans are enthusiastic in their desire for expanded American travel to Cuba. And of course if we think Cubans are not fit judges of their own best interests, then advocating for Cuban democracy is a fool’s errand.

Fidel Castro is dead; Raul Castro is 86 and has said he will step down at the end of his term next year. First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel is supposed to be the designated successor. There is always hope upon succession that some degree of change will come – as Raul Castro allowed private enterprise after succeeding his older brother. And Diaz-Canel, born in 1960, is not of the revolutionary generation. If no change comes from above, there is hope that the new government will lack the hold on Cuba that the Castros have had, so that change may come from below.

I am something of a long-view optimist in these matters. I believe that people want a say in their own affairs, preferring self-government to autocracy, and that people want to have legally guaranteed rights – not just as against other people, but as against the government.

So democracy will eventually come to Cuba. Economic sanctions are unlikely to hasten that day; therefore, the primary effect of Trump’s reversion to pre-Obama travel rules will be to decrease individual Cubans’ economic opportunities and well-being in the meantime.


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