Last week, President Trump decided to scale back President Obama’s rapprochement with the communist government of Cuba. Every major story has talking points, and this one is no exception. After watching the media’s reaction, it became clear that one of them would be that the “older generation” of Cuban Americans supports the president’s hard-line stance whilst the younger generation opposes it.
There’s truth in this. Despite exceptions like myself, younger Cuban Americans tend to be far less interested in maintaining longstanding U.S. policy toward Cuba than older ones like my grandparents are. But the implication, of course, is that this sentiment is unfashionable and obsolescent; in another generation or two it’ll be dead, along with the generation that’s responsible for its influential persistence.
Perhaps that’s true. So what? Is there something about being young and fashionable that makes one more competent than older people to speak on this topic or any other? On the contrary, people who’ve experienced Castroism are far more qualified than the relatively affluent Cuban-Americans of my generation who’ve lived as far away from the harms of communism as a person can be in this world.
The Lucky Ones Got Away With Only Their Lives
My great-grandfather was an officer in Cuba’s regular army during the rebellion. Sometime after the communists took over the country, he was arrested as a political prisoner because the “cancer of Batista” was in his blood, they told him. According to my great-grandmother’s account, he would’ve been executed if it hadn’t been for a connection in the new government, who secured his release. Her brother, my great-uncle, wasn’t as lucky; he was murdered by the regime.
A few years later, they decided to flee Cuba. Government expropriated their house—for which they had worked many years—and their personal effects, down to my grandmother’s wedding ring. Unfortunately, this wasn’t uncommon. Hundreds of thousands of other Cuban Americans have similar stories to tell. I haven’t yet mentioned the other half of my family, who were also persecuted.
Despite the above, my family were relatively lucky. The communist usurpers’ enormous seizure of property is only one of their many crimes. Summary executions, torture, and imprisonment of counter-revolutionaries were common in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, especially in the immediate aftermath of his revolution. And that’s only scratching the surface. The Castro regime outlawed religious practice and sent homosexuals to labor camps, for just two more examples.
All of these facts are why the older generations tend to be much more sceptical of leftism than the younger generations: they’ve experienced it and would like very much never to do so again. That’s why Cuban Americans have been the only Hispanic community in this country that reliably supports the Republican Party. It’s unfortunate this is changing.
Don’t Knock It If You Haven’t Tried It
In the light of the above, it isn’t difficult to see why the opinions of the older Cubans are more weighty in this matter than those of millennials: One group experienced the scourge that is revolutionary socialism; the other enjoys the benefits of capitalism in Che Guevara T-shirts. If truth is what we’re interested in, then the older folk are much more reliable guides than the younger ones. That’s why I’ve chosen to put much more stock in my grandparents’ experiences than in the underdeveloped political opinions of third-generation Cuban Americans.
Not surprisingly, then, the rational case for rapprochement is weak. A common claim is that the United States regularly does business with other repressive states like China. Why not Cuba as well?
This argument seems to involve a pretty appalling principle, according to which if a country subsidizes oppression anywhere then it ought to subsidize it everywhere. And the Left doesn’t apply this principle to right-wing repressive regimes. Afrikaner apartheid comes to mind. There the Left supported isolating and boycotting the Afrikaner government until they relinquished their power and ended apartheid. It’s only leftist regimes that they oppose sanctioning.
Why Cuba’s Embargo Hasn’t Worked
The next argument one invariably hears involves the claim that the embargo hasn’t worked, and there’s truth in this. It’s true that the embargo and travel restrictions haven’t led to significant human rights reforms on the island. Far from being a bastion of liberalism, Cuba remains an illiberal, country-sized shanty town frozen in the 1950s. From this, it is concluded that we should normalize relations with the Cuban government.
Even supposing that the premise were true, the conclusion wouldn’t follow. It would follow only if we had reason to suppose that normalization would lead to significant liberal reform, for if it wouldn’t, then all we’d achieve by normalizing relations is to help a repressive regime, enabling them to profit from American money and business for nothing in return.
Is there any reason to suppose that normalization would lead to significant political reforms? Not really. President Obama got virtually nothing in return for his rapprochement. (This shouldn’t surprise anyone who sees that the communists wouldn’t have supported normalization if they didn’t think it would help them maintain their grip on the country.)
Moreover, we have lots of inconvenient empirical evidence against this hypothesis. Over the last few decades, millions of tourists from other Western countries (e.g., Canada, the United Kingdom, France, etc.) have visited the island, pouring in millions of dollars. Hundreds of thousands of tourists from these countries visit Cuba every year. Despite this, there have been no significant political reforms that have even a tenuous connection to Western tourism and trade. Is there something magical about American tourists that will suddenly cause the Cuban government to have an epiphany and relinquish power?
The Embargo Keeps Us from Subsidizing Misery
The failure of other countries’ normalization approach isn’t remotely surprising. Over the last few decades, the Cuban government has succeeded in making an entire population completely dependent on the government. What’s more, they ingeniously allowed the entirety of their political opposition to flee decades ago, leaving only those brainwashed to believe that capitalism and the United States are the reason for their destitution. Given these facts, we shouldn’t expect that allowing millions of dollars to flow into the hands of the government would lead them to change the status quo, which they like very much.
Consequently, as with the hard-line approach, we have reason to suppose that normalization would not lead to liberalization, but unlike the hard-line approach, it would involve American business and money helping prop up Cuba’s odious regime.
That’s why this argument is seriously flawed: It assumes that the only goal of having an embargo and travel ban is to cause regime change or political reform. Not so. The primary reason to maintain this policy is to prevent us from being complicit in evil without any compensating good.
On that front, the policy has, until Obama, been a resounding success. It would be a resounding success on the other front as well if only other Western countries had followed our example, but the regime has been able to maintain its grip on power precisely because of the kind of normalized relations for which people on the Left advocate. Without that profit and with international isolation in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the regime likely would’ve gone the way of Afrikaner rule in South Africa.
The older generation happen to be right on this issue. I’m glad President Trump decided to listen to them.