Shadow Government

Can the U.S. Force Cuba to Reform? Not a Chance.

In an article published last week in Foreign Policy, Christopher Sabatini called for elevating the tone of the debate on U.S.-Cuba relations by dispensing with what he characterized as shouting and name-calling. If that is the case, it is not quite clear how referring to supporters of the U.S. embargo as "rabid," and as the mirror image of the despots in Havana, contributes to his idea of "reasoned political discussion."

Be that as it may, Sabatini writes that not every critic of U.S. policy is a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. That is certainly true. There is no shortage of people of good will, frustrated by the ungodly conditions forced upon the Cuban people by the Castro regime, who argue for changes in U.S. policy to ostensibly help the Cuban people improve their lot in the face of oppressive state control.

Specifically, Sabatini argues that targeted economic engagement towards Cuba's nascent micro-entrepreneurs "might create the conditions for an organic process of change on the island" by fostering citizen independence in Cuba and less reliance on the state.

According to Sabatini, "Supporting these people should be as American as apple pie, right?"

For the sake of the Cuban people, would that that were the case. Allowing micro-credits and U.S.-sourced inputs to budding Cuban entrepreneurs may make for an interesting intellectual exercise (and salve a few consciences), but it has as about much chance of changing Cuba as the Castro brothers abdicating tomorrow.

Fifty years of dictatorship in Cuba have unfortunately taught us certain truths -- truths that are impervious to such noble sentiments as wanting to "do something" to empower Cubans against their oppressors.

This regime has not survived for five decades without knowing what threatens it internally and what doesn't. They understand more than anyone what de Tocqueville meant when he wrote that, "the most critical moment for evil governments is the one which witnesses their first steps toward reform." To Havana, it's not "reform or die," it is "reform and die." Indeed, the most reviled international figure inside the regime is not any American president. It is Mikhail Gorbachev, who believed the communist system could be reformed and the Party retain its primacy. The Castro brothers are not about to make his "mistake."

A second truth to understand about Cuba is that no U.S. policymaker will ever want to get rid of the Castro regime more than the regime wants to stay in power. It is not just an uneven playing field -- it is one tilting at 85 degrees. Cuba's generals know there are only two outcomes for them: total control or wind up like Mussolini or Ceausescu. To think they will be outwitted or outsmarted by Foggy Bottom bureaucrats is simply folly.

Lastly, the micro-economic space opened up for individual Cubans is hardly indicative of new thinking among Cuba's geriatric generals. Sabatini acknowledges as much, calling them "minor, timid, and insecure." That's because they are not meant as a real reform attempt to improve lives of the Cuban people. Their purpose is twofold: To get Cubans off the state payrolls and to tax activity that is already occurring on the black market.

They are meant to be minor and reversible. As soon as they have served their purpose in providing some economic relief to the state, they will be rolled back just as the regime has done countless times before. It will happen the moment the regime detects a breach in the parameters of tolerated civilian independence or when economic circumstances change. That is what happened in the 1990s when similar limited self-employment opportunities were allowed. As soon as the mendicant Castro brothers began receiving Venezuelan subsidies, the pressure was off and the openings reversed.

Well, won't that at this point generate a popular backlash against the regime? The regime has paid no price for 50 years of crackdowns on its own people; why would it worry now?

Or else, what's the harm in trying? Nothing else has worked. Because it becomes a distraction to the core issue: an unrepentant dictatorship that believes it has the metaphysical right to control every facet of its citizens' lives in the pursuit of some warped historical vision. And what would we discover in the end? That the Castro regime is against reform? Count me out.

Sabatini writes, "More than a half-century of experience with one policy has failed to produce change." But he has no monopoly on frustration or humanitarian concern. All decent people are frustrated with the lack of change in Cuba and the terrible toll Castroism has taken on the Cuban people -- most of all Cuban-Americans, who continue to see their homeland systematically destroyed while the world mocks their protests.

I would give anything to propose a surefire policy prescription that would end Cuba's nightmare. But after 30 years studying the issue, it is clear to me that there will be no change in Cuba until the Castro brothers, and their generation, are gone from the scene. Ideally, the world would come to the same conclusion, but that is pie in the sky. Nor is this to abandon the Cuban people to their fate. There are numerous channels through which humanitarian assistance from the United States is reaching the Cuban people. Under the tragic circumstances, that is the best we can do until nature takes its course. 

ALEJANDRO ERNESTO/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

A Week of Surprises in Iraq

I like to pride myself on not being surprised. This week, as usual, pride goeth before a fall.

It is unlikely, but possible, to connect some dots this week in a peculiar way. First, non-Kurdish Iraq is falling to Islamist militants, and a particularly nasty strain of Islamist militants who once caused even other Islamist militants to turn away with disgust at their aims and methods; second, the U.S. is apparently considering airstrikes in support of Iraqi forces, however distant such an option may be in the president's own mind; and third, Iranian ground forces are already in Iraq assisting Iraqi forces, and more Iranian troops may be on the way.

And here is the latest surprise: As an indication of just how far American policy has departed from the previously unthinkable, we are at a point where it is imaginable (unlikely, but "imaginable" is the operative point) where the U.S. Air Force and Navy could conduct airstrikes in direct or indirect support of Iranian forces in Iraq. I, for one, did not see this day coming.

Some things, I can foresee. I will not claim that Pope Francis's prayer meeting with Peres and Abbas in the Vatican gardens resulted in the Israeli election of a new president who favors a "one-state solution" (albeit a proposed state with strong minority rights), but I did foresee that immediate peace was unlikely coming out of that meeting, which itself grew from the sense that prayer was all that was left after Secretary Kerry's strange efforts to jam a two-state solution down the parties' throats. I did not foresee that Israel would oppose the United States and support China's effort to de-legitimize bilateral security arrangements in Asia, but it was not hard to see that playing fast and loose with Israeli security, or survival, might have consequences for how Israel views the U.S. as a partner. I did not foresee the date of Putin's invasion of Crimea, but again, it was not hard to see that he would not sit still for the ouster of his client in Kiev during his Olympics, that everything his foreign minister would subsequently say would be a lie and would be believed eagerly (or at least given public credence) by western officials from Berlin though London to #Washington (at least until his minions started commenting on the State Department spokeswoman's wardrobe -- there are still redlines), and that Putin's plan to foment chaos would continue indefinitely or until his restoration of Russia's rightful (by his lights) sphere of influence is complete.

To help me avoid further surprises, I hope Shadow Government's best minds will try to answer this: What will the Obama administration give the Iranian mullahs in the nuclear negotiations in order to get this Iraq mess off the front pages and ensure that "ending" the Iraq war continues to be one of the president's most cherished legacy items? And is there a way forward for the U.S. that would, surprisingly, make the current moment seem less like a blend of 1914 and 1938?

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