Opinion

Reactions to the Cuba thaw: Will this change matter?

A sampling of editorial and opinion writers on normalization of relations with Cuba

President Obama's announcement Wednesday that the U.S. would resume diplomatic relations with Cuba after more than a half-century is, indeed, a historic event. It's also something of an afterthought to the Cold War, which has been history itself for more than two decades now.

So how has Obama's decision to end one of the U.S. government's most stubborn international positions played with the nation's opinionators? Our editorial board approved the move as long overdue and reflecting a changed world and changed political dynamics. Some other pages agreed with us; others did not.

The New York Times welcomed the move as, among other things, a recognition of the changed world in which we live. The paper also singled out Fidel Castro's brother, who now runs the regime and has overseen a softening of economic policies, for praise:

"Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, deserves credit for his pragmatism. While Cuba remains a repressive police state with a failed economy, under his leadership since 2008, the country has begun a process of economic reforms that have empowered ordinary Cubans and lifted travel restrictions the government cruelly imposed on its citizens.

“ 'We must learn the art of coexisting with our differences in a civilized manner,' Mr. Castro said on Wednesday."

The Washington Post, though, was less impressed, writing under the headline, "Obama gives the Castro regime in Cuba an undeserved bailout":

"The administration says its move will transform relations with Latin America, but that is naive. Countries that previously demanded an end to U.S. sanctions on Cuba will not now look to Havana for reforms; instead, they will press the Obama administration not to sanction Venezuela. Mr. Obama says normalizing relations will allow the United States to be more effective in promoting political change in Cuba. That is contrary to U.S. experience with Communist regimes such as Vietnam, where normalization has led to no improvements on human rights in two decades. Moreover, nothing in Mr. Obama’s record of lukewarm and inconstant support for democratic change across the globe can give ... freedom fighters confidence in this promise.

"The Vietnam outcome is what the Castros are counting on: a flood of U.S. tourists and business investment that will allow the regime to maintain its totalitarian system indefinitely. Mr. Obama may claim that he has dismantled a 50-year-old failed policy; what he has really done is give a 50-year-old failed regime a new lease on life."

The Wall Street Journal similarly thought the move was a bad idea -- that Obama had given away too much in return for too little:

"The least defensible part of Mr. Obama’s new policy is its attempt to rehabilitate Cuba as an ordinary state. The president has tasked Secretary of State John Kerry to begin talks on renewing formal diplomatic ties, and he wants 'high-level exchanges and visits between our two governments as part of the normalization process.'

"Mr. Obama also called for a review of Cuba’s designation on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Cuba wants off that list, though there is solid evidence that it has helped Venezuela relocate Iranian agents in the Americas.

"What’s striking is how little Cuba had to do for such a major shift in U.S. policy. At least Burma’s military government released the leader of the opposition and opened up its political process before the U.S. lifted sanctions."

The Miami Herald was skeptical, as well, offering a numbered list of points which included:

"Second: This is a new beginning, a milestone in U.S./Cuba relations, but President Obama’s opening to Cuba is not yet the 'game-changer' others have labeled it. The game won’t change until Cuba makes effective, substantive moves toward democratic reform in Cuba.

"Third: Raul Castro told the nation on Wednesday that Cuba agreed to restore full diplomatic relations 'without renouncing a single one of our principles.' If those principles include maintaining a chokehold on liberty inside Cuba, the hopes of the Cuban people and the exile community will be dashed once again."

At the Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty warned that the change in status won't necessarily mean much change for average Cubans, but will fuel America's domestic political wars:

"No one knows what human rights and economic reforms the Cuban regime will implement after an embargo lift. But we do know that a very shallow, silly debate is coming to America. On the right, the free market squad will conjure an image of Cuban casinos for wealthy tourists, Cuban tech startups, and Cuban kids with iPhones making life better for everyone in the Western hemisphere. And a nostalgic left will warn that malicious neoliberals will turn Havana into another phony Caribbean tourist trap, and that a rich Cuban culture and an enduring ethic of social solidarity will be destroyed by Merck, Uber, and Chick-fil-A.

"The truth is there's no instruction manual for fixing societies that have been made decrepit through communism. There is no obvious set of policies for devolving nationalized enterprises into private hands in a just way. Those with ambition and ability have been recruited and corrupted by the party already. The tendency for power and industry to coalesce in free market nations, becomes in communism the vehicle for a much more explicit kind of conspiracy. The shock doctrine in Russia meant that apparatchiks who had state-facilitated power under the U.S.S.R. could amass power and obscene wealth through the same old allies. For those at the top, the system may look the same."

At The Guardian, novelist Cristina Garcia looked at the hope that many Cubans, tired of corruption and crime, had when Castro swept the dictator Fulgencio Batista out of power in 1959, only to become dictator himself. The lesson is that change is not necessarily improvement:

"For years, Castro blamed the U.S. embargo – a senseless policy if there ever was one, and I’m relieved to finally see it start to go – for Cuba’s economic troubles, never accepting responsibility for his own erratic, ill-conceived decisions that helped run the country aground. This became painfully evident after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which presaged the collapse of the Soviet Union and the drastic depletion of the Revolution’s hefty subsidies along with it. What ensued were terrible times – euphemistically called the Special Period – during which many Cubans went hungry. In a desperate bid for foreign currency, Castro threw open the doors to tourism and its attendant problems, including glaring socioeconomic disparities that brought on rampant prostitution, black market hustling and more corruption.

"Sound familiar?"

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.

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