Six years ago President Barack Obama visited Havana—the first U.S. president to do so since 1928. On that trip he announced that he had come “to put an end to the longest Cold War in the hemisphere.”
As far as Obama was concerned, the war was certainly over. Even before his arrival he had announced the lifting of some travel restrictions, limitations on remittances, and the exchange of ambassadors in both capitals. More importantly, he instructed the State Department to remove Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism.
In spite of Cuba’s horrific human rights policy and Cuba’s decades-long campaign against United States’ and free world interests, the atmospherics of the visit suggested, in fact, that Cuba was a “normal” country—President Obama even visited a baseball game with dictator-president Raul Castro! One can only speculate about the howls of indignation a similarly cordial visit to a friendly authoritarian (pro-United States) regime would have provoked in the New York Times, Washington Post, or NPR!
In foreign relations as in much else, Americans are a practical people in a hurry to get things done. How often we seem to say, “Let us deal with the concrete issues, so that we can move on to the bright, sunny uplands of aid and trade, tourism and scientific exchanges.” The fact that other societies might prefer to make ancient grudges or follies of grandeur the stuff of their foreign policy makes no sense to us, and therefore we refuse to take those attitudes seriously. When our excessive pragmatism fails to engage the unwilling partner, we slump into doubt and despair, asking ourselves what we have done wrong.
One hopes that this endemic American provincialism—rather than a covert sympathy for Third World radicalism—is what motivated President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Havana. In either case, however, the harsh fact is that as far as the Cuban regime is concerned, the war against the United States and its allies is far from over. To see just how much that is the case one needs only to turn to Néstor T. Carbonell’s Why Cuba Matters, a massive and authoritative volume which has just been published and is available both from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Carbonell is in an excellent position to discuss these matters. A successful Cuban-American businessman, he is the son and grandson of Cuban statesmen and diplomats. He spent his late teenage years struggling against the dictator Fulgencio Batista, and like most Cubans of his generation, he welcomed the advent of the revolution. Very quickly, however, he realized that Fidel Castro and his associates had little interest in making Cuba a better country; rather, their purpose was to cast the island in a starring role of what they imagined was a Communist world to come.
Indeed, Cuba under Castro became virtually the only country in the world to voluntarily enter what one might call the Soviet commonwealth of nations. This motivated Carbonell to join the ill-fated Bay of Pigs expedition, about which he has much to say in the course of this book.
In fact, Why Cuba Matters is several books in one. One is an exercise in autobiography. Another is a discussion of the various attempts of the United States to come to terms with Cuba, first through covert action, and then through diplomatic means. And yet another is a careful analysis of the continuing threats which Cuba represents to the United States and its allies around the world.
The second of these themes represents a detailed analysis of various attempts by successive U.S. administrations, starting with that of John F. Kennedy, to reach a modus vivendi with the island regime. One by one Carbonell walks through each of these negotiations, none of which have come to fruition.
Many old myths are consigned here to the waste basket, particularly the long-standing fantasy (which Castro himself subsequently denied) that the island turned to the Soviet Union only when the United States refused his government economic aid. Indeed, the Obama administration’s latest ploy was merely surrender—in exchange for nothing at all, Cuba got some of what it wanted, and if the Democrats returned to power next year, Cuba will get more.
Just why some Americans feel so guilty about opposing the Cuban regime is not a subject of this book. (For that I recommend the late Paul Hollander’s recent book, From Benito Mussolini to Hugo Chavez). The record, however, shows itself as repeated failure. The regnant conclusion in foreign policy circles seems to be, since policy of opposition has worked, we need to try “something else,” whether that “something else” holds out any promise of success or not.
The third part of the book is the most important. It details the ways in which Cuba remains an adversary of U.S. interests. Brick by brick Carbonell builds his case, starting with the Cuban takeover of the Maduro police-state in Venezuela, financed now less by oil (which the regime in Caracas can no longer produce) than by intimate relations with rogue regimes as far afield as the Middle East. Cuba’s support of the FARC guerrillas in Colombia through weapons, intelligence, and money laundering is a matter of record.
Nor is Cuban mischief-making confined to its immediate neighborhood. Carbonell reminds us that quite recently Cuba colluded with North Korea to smuggle 240 tons of heavy weapons through the Panama Canal, hidden under bags of sugar, and of the shipment of cocaine to Belgium contained in false containers of molasses. Cuba’s long concubinage with the Soviet Union seems to be reviving in the form of a tacit alliance with Putin’s Russia, which has forgiven $32 billion of bad debt and represents a sweetener to new projects, including the reopening of an electronic listening post in Lourdes, less than 100 miles from Key West.
There is some evidence that the regime in Havana has been engaged in intelligence and military cooperation with the mullahs in Tehran, along with similar services loaned to Ortega’s dictatorship in Nicaragua. Cuba also provides sanctuary for dozens of fugitives and domestic terrorists from the United States.
One might well ask what—apart from a desire to spit in the face of the United States—has motivated the regime over time. The answer is fairly simple. At the time he took power, Fidel Castro promised the Cuban people “a standard of living higher than that of Sweden.” At the time the country already had the second or third highest living standard (and by the way, literacy) in Latin America, although, as Carbonell explains, there was a huge gap between city and countryside which needed to be closed. (Even so, half the Cuban population at that time lived in cities). Now, however, Cuba’s living standards compare unfavorably with formerly less-favored neighbors like the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, or the poorest regions of Mexico.
Having failed to deliver basic subsistence to its people, the only thing left for the Cuban regime to do is to irritate or subvert more successful countries near and far. It’s a living, one might say—for the Castro family and their minions. The Cuban sugar industry can never be revived, but, as Carbonell points out in the concluding chapter, Cuba could still make significant economic progress in agriculture, food processing, mining and many other areas. This, however, would require a wholly different political and economic regime than the one which the Castros have trussed upon Cuban society.
The United States cannot remake Cuba into a more successful country, but as the author here establishes, it can have no interest in encouraging its failures.