The Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, who splits her time between the United States and Havana, traveled to Cuba in recent days seeking to pull off a bold experiment. She called on Cubans from all walks of life to meet at Havana’s iconic Revolution Square on Tuesday at 3 p.m., where they would take turns at a microphone to outline their vision for the new era in the country. Word of the event, which was billed as both a performance and a street protest, was shared on social media using the hashtag #YoTambiénExijo, which means “I also demand.”
Ms. Bruguera’s plan was the first test of whether the Obama administration’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba earlier this month would prod the Castro regime to be more tolerant of critical voices. Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, the government barred prominent critics, including Ms. Bruguera, from reaching the square. Some were detained and others were reportedly prevented from leaving their homes. In the end, the performance wasn’t held.
Authorities in Cuba appear to have wrestled with how to prevent Ms. Bruguera’s project from turning into a mass gathering of critics. They allowed her to travel to the island, though she had publicized her project well in advance. In recent days, officials from the state-run arts council summoned her for a meeting. In a statement, the council said it had made clear to her that her plan was “unacceptable,” because of the location and the “ample media coverage” in outlets that are critical of the government. Officials proposed that the event be held instead at a cultural site, according to the statement, and said that the government would “reserve the right” to bar people whose “sole interest is to be provocative.”
Obviously, this is appalling, and it shows that the Cuban regime is as vile as it ever was. It also shows that the regime is completely incapable of reciprocating the goodwill shown to it by the Obama administration in the administration’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba.
I imagine that there are readers who wonder whether I am rethinking my decision to endorse the administration’s move to change the nature of Cuban-American relations. Not in the least. I never expected that the decision to normalize relations would bring about an overnight change in the regime’s behavior, and my favorable link to Dan Drezner’s piece on the normalization of relations–which warned us that change would not occur overnight in Cuba–indicates as much. At best, normalization–and the lifting of the embargo against Cuba–will help Cuba move in fits and starts towards a more liberalized political environment. But again, we have tried diplomatic isolation and the embargo for over fifty years, and that strategy has failed to bring about any results. It is time for a new approach, and as Drezner notes, the Obama administration’s new approach can ultimately bring about a very good outcome:
First, the odds of orderly liberalization and democratization in Cuba have increased. Not by a lot — maybe from 2 percent to 10 percent. But that’s still an improvement. Even if full-blown regime transition doesn’t happen, economic liberalization does make a society somewhat more free. Today’s Post editorial points to Vietnam as the worst-case outcome for the Cuba policy. But Vietnam now has a considerably more liberal climate than before the US opening, so I don’t think that’s the best example.
Second, as my Washington Post colleagues Erik Voeten and Ishaan Tharoor have already observed, U.S. policy on Cuba has been, literally, isolationist — as in, it isolates the United States. Unlike other cases (see below), there is zero multilateral support for sanctioning Cuba — quite the opposite, in fact. Improving ties with Havana ameliorates a long-standing source of friction between the United States and Latin America. That’s called “good diplomacy.”
Third, when you consider the mammoth size of the United States and Cuba’s proximity, the only parallel economic relationship that comes to mind is China-Taiwan — if Taiwan were a lot poorer. If trade, tourism and investment takes off between the two countries, Cuba will quickly become the more asymmetrically dependent actor, no matter how hard the Cuban government tries to resist. This won’t make it much easier for the United States to affect regime change — but it will nudge Cuba towards a less confrontational foreign policy.
We gave the old policy half a century to work, and it didn’t. We should give the new one some time. And of course, it is worth noting that in the past, the Cuban regime tried to claim that American efforts to diplomatically and economically isolate Cuba were the catalyst for any repressive measures undertaken by the regime. They can’t do that anymore. And the world knows it.