19 August 2015

Cuba is an opportunity, not a threat

By Nick Zaiac

Twenty years after the end of the Cold War, some vestiges of the defunct conflict still remain. In US politics, little fits the description of “vestige” better than the nation’s long-sour relationship with the Cuban state. Fifty-three years have passed since diplomatic ties were cut, but things are changing, and they’re changing fast.

The Obama administration’s recent actions to rationalize relations with Cuba will form a significant part of the President’s foreign policy legacy.

On Friday, in Havana, Secretary of State John Kerry was present for the American embassy’s opening ceremony. This comes a few weeks after Cuba re-opened its embassy in Washington, DC.

American citizens have already begun making trips to Cuba, as restrictions on travel to the island have been loosened. In March, Hollywood joined in as late night TV host Conan O’Brien shot an episode on Cuban soil. Travelers have even been allowed to bring limited amounts of Cuba’s famed cigars and rum back when returning to the States.

Relations between the two countries are moving ever closer to complete normalization, ending one of the most unnecessarily hostile relationships in world politics.

It has been clear for some time that an end to the hostile Cuban-American relationship was on the horizon. Repairing relations would form part of some President’s legacy, and the Obama administration has staked its claim.

Many in the US political establishment continue to support the status quo for Cuba relations. They cite the horrible human rights abuses the Castro regime perpetuates, and argue that the regime must be punished in every way necessary. Yet, the Castros are likely no worse than many countries that the US trades with. We have relations with the Chinese government, those of various African kleptocrats, and theocratic regimes in the Middle East. Why is the Castro regime in Cuba any worse than them?

The fact is that the Castro regime of 2015 is no more hostile to the US than many countries with which the US trades and has official relations. In the past, the threat Cuba posed was backed up by allies on the broader left, first the USSR, and more recently the Chavista regime in Venezuela. While just 90 miles off the US coast, the nation is poor, mismanaged, and reliant on Venezuelan subsidies that its patron can ill-afford.

Most people have a stylized image of Cuba in their minds. The old cars, whitewashed buildings, dancing, Hemingway’s Cuba. But that stylized image is nothing like the reality today. Market Urbanism’s Scott Beyer recently traveled to Havana and found the city crumbling. He described it as “the Latin American Detroit… a once-great city that declined because of bad policies”. Evidence of this stagnation is everywhere, from Havana’s flooding streets to the nation’s ever-lagging GDP and bloated government bureaucracy.

The economic policies that earned the Castro regime powerful allies in the past have made it a feeble nation today. What was a threat is now “just another country.” Cuba is not special, and treating it as if it were simply allows the Castro regime to blame the United States for economic problems they brought upon their own people.

The Obama administration has taken a step toward sound public policy with their move to normalize relations with the Cuban government. Almost all of the nation’s allies— indeed, almost all countries—have relations with Cuba. Normalizing relations brings the US in line with the world norm toward the Castro regime.

Rationalizing US-Cuba relations is a welcome move. The regime is no longer a particularly credible threat to US interests abroad. It is a fairly run-of-the-mill, left-wing regime in Latin America—like those in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Argentina. It makes sense that we treat the Cuban government like its peers.

Nick Zaiac is a public-policy researcher in Washington, DC. He spends his days shedding light on the regulatory state. Follow him @NickZaiac.