April 15, 2009 7:39 pm
Barack Obama’s relaxation of sanctions against Cuba is a modest but significant step. It is welcome if belated recognition that half a century of US attempts to isolate and strangle Cuba, to cut it off from the free movement of people and goods, turned into a near-perfect mechanism for keeping Fidel Castro in power. The Comandante en Jefe, in his twilight years, should look back with satisfaction at the cack-handedness of his arch-enemy.
The blockade of Cuba was a failure. It helped radicalise the Cuban revolution, pushing it firmly into the Soviet camp. It enabled Mr Castro to justify more easily his monopoly of power through the Communist party, and to dictate the terms of political debate – not just in Cuba but, for a long time, throughout the Latin American left. Those who insist Castroism was not a distinct ideology, but a fusion of Caribbean caudillismo and Stalinism, are essentially right. But they are missing the point: it was turned into a hemispheric distortion, promoted by the image of a little island resisting the might of empire with dignity.
And there was never any shortage of American adversaries willing to help Cuba tweak the imperial tail so long as the embargo endured. Until the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow provided an important part of Havana’s economic and military backbone. But, as Soviet fortunes declined, Iran, for instance, provided Mr Castro with an invaluable monthly stipend through the spot market for crude oil. More recently, the oil wealth of Venezuela under the populist Hugo Chavez has given Cuba’s regime a new lease of life.
Mr Obama has lifted all travel and remittance restrictions on Cuban-Americans and allowed US telecoms groups to offer services to the island. This is not, as yet, even a reversal of the tighter restrictions introduced under George W. Bush.
Mr Castro is not wrong, in his characteristically prolix blog, to complain that Mr Obama had not a word to say about the “cruel” blockade. But change is afoot.
For a start, Mr Castro complained the US was not going far enough: he wants a real thaw, as Congressmen who recently met him and his brother, President Raul Castro, attest. Second, Latin American leaders are pushing for Washington to normalise relations with Cuba, as Mr Obama will see at a regional summit in a few days time. Third, the electoral arithmetic has changed inside the US, especially in the battleground state of Florida, where even the Cuban American National Foundation, the main emigre lobby, now acknowledges the embargo has been a failure.
Raul Castro has recently tightened his grip on power. But there are powerful external forces in play. Cuba is attracting investment not just from Russia and China but from Brazil and Spain. The left has new models in the region: not just in Venezuela but Brazil and Chile.
Hurricanes last year cost Cuba about a fifth of its total annual output – its ramshackle economy desperately needs help. Ending sanctions is not only the best way to promote good will but also to trigger reform. People to people relations will end the state of siege on which this dictatorship has so thrived.
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