Dreaming of Cuba

U.S. Policy toward Cuba is again being debated. This leads me to re-visit what I wrote about Cuba one year ago today, when I knew nothing would happen before the election but something could afterwards if Obama won.

Well he won of course, and he captured the majority of the Cuban-American vote along the way. I therefore still stand by my original view, which I re-post below.


Whoever wins the Presidential election in November will face criticism from Central and South American nations about the embargo and isolation of Cuba. Neither candidate will budge on this issue prior to the election, for reasons obvious to anyone who understands the electoral college. As a Republican interested in re-election, Romney will not budge after November either, if he wins (another reason why this election matters). However, if President Obama is re-elected, he will have a historically unprecedented opening to redefine the U.S.-Cuba relationship.

Consider the facts:

*After November, President Obama will not stand for election again and need therefore not fear personal electoral consequences.

*The Cuban exiles overwhelmingly vote Republican, so there is not much for a Democratic President (or other Democratic candidates) to lose in popularity with that population in any event.

*Hatred of Castro is still prevalent among older Cuban-Americans in Florida, but their children and even moreso their grandchildren want a closer connection between the U.S. and Cuba.

*By the time of the 2016 Presidential election, Fidel Castro will be 90 if he is alive at all. The people nursing grudges against him in South Florida are also passing into history. No matter whether that generation was right or wrong, the future of the U.S.-Cuba relationship belongs to others.

The President has already laid good groundwork by making travel to Cuba easier. He could and should dramatically expand travel and exchange programmes (including for children) after the election, restrict the embargo’s reach (exempting all but military supplies, perhaps), and consider expanding our formal diplomatic presence in Havana.

The political reality may be that as long as the Castros are alive, we can’t fully normalize our relationship with Cuba. If that is so, there is no reason why we can’t have all the pieces in place to jump start a friendship 24 hours after those cold war dinosaurs go for a Burton.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

21 thoughts on “Dreaming of Cuba”

  1. This assumes that such a landmark decision is Obama’s alone to make, and that he’s inclined to take the steps you suggest. I suspect the risk-averse Democratic leadership would have something to say against taking these steps. They generally don’t like to take bold steps where foreign policy is concerned. Also, the 2016 Democratic candidate for present will have to answer for any changes in Cuba policy regardless of the fact that it was Obama who made the decision. (Politics has a way for tarring all candidates from the same party with the same brush.)

    I have no inside info on the thinking of Democratic leadership with regards to Cuba, so maybe there’s a constituency within the leadership that thinks this is a good idea. But I’d be pretty surprised if that is the case.

  2. I just do not understand why we pick our presidents thinking of the consequence in other country, Honestly our own Country (USA) is in his worst condition ever. shooting, Burglary, unemployment, other country our threaten bombing us. I just do not understand why when we pick a president only think what can they do for the USA. NOT WHAT THEY CAN DO FOR CUBA OR VENEZUELA EXAMPLE THEY RELECTED CHAVIS EVEN though the evil person is dead. Cuba no one will touch cuba. the Castros themself. I we should stop being so involve in other country and start getting involve what is going on in are own country. and For Elections of the Presidents nothing is ever greener in the otherside and we should do research on the president and so where they come from and what can they do for this country. and no other country. As For the Cuba, its all a political B.S. AND THE USA AND CUBA ARE VERY TIGHT. and nothing is going to change that. The only thing that is doing here they will do what they want. My conclusions Castro in the USA Has a big part together. and if there is any president that will change that would be a Republican differently not a Democratic president. If we the cuban had any chance of Freedom in Cuba is differently not going to be with Obama and the people relected Obama and the people we Elected The Evil Chavez even though he is hell and those that cry for him relect him again. and the same for Castro, he is there because of the people.
    I think we need to focuse in this country that has open there doors for us and here is were we live. Cuba is in our heart and our blood but is no longer our country why should we even support them. I think we should just bring those that want to come to the USA AND Leave those that want to worship the devil in cuba.

  3. It’s actually not hard to go to Cuba. I’ve been twice, quite legally, as part of “people-to-people” cultural exchanges. I would very much like to see the travel embargo lifted, even though then “just anyone” could go, and that would eliminate the slight, and mostly unwarranted, frisson due to the forbidden fruit nature of the trip.

    I have a vague understanding, gleaned from my young Cuban-American seatmate on one flight, that it’s fairly easy for those with close relatives there to go. He said he went often for holidays and so on. That in itself probably makes younger Cuban-Americans more willing to ease restrictions further. Most people would rather visit their grandmother than nurse old grudges.

    Havana has the potential be one of the most beautiful cities in the western hemisphere. It’s tragic, really, that it isn’t. Why not is left as an exercise for the reader.

    1. Havana has the potential be one of the most beautiful cities in the western hemisphere

      Aye. One can imagine Sheldon Aldeson chomping at the bits to “improve” Havana with some hot casinos. One can imagine Aldeson and friends exporting to that tiny isle American-style democracy, which means of course, a new Batista blathering on about “markets for everything”. One can imagine Cuban children forsaking tops and kites for violent video games. One can imagine a liberated Cuban people finally being free to “twitter’ inanities at the world. One can imagine the skinny Cuban people finally being empowered to get obese on Colonel McNuggets. One can imagine Rush Limbaugh types flying into Havana for brown skin weekends.

      Which is all to suggest I’m with Lilly Echazabal’s opinion for a whole flight of different reasons. I can’t see Americans improving Cuba one fraction of an inch. The worst thing that could happen to that island is for it to be infected with “American Exceptionalism.” The best thing is to continue as it is, sans Ugly Americans by the planeload.

        1. But don’t let me stop you.

          I don’t think there is any risk of that!

  4. When former Rep. Pat Schroeder briefly ran for President, she suggested in an interview that we let someone open a Triple-A baseball team in Havana — presumably not affiliated with the Yankees. Fidel being an avid baseball fan would welcome it, and before long Cubans would be clamoring for other American products and services.
    Made more sense than anything anyone else was saying.

    1. In this context, it is worth noting that the beginning of the end of the Iron Curtain was initiated by the citizens of the two Eastern European countries that were most exposed to Western influence; Hungary and East-Germany. In Hungary, Goulash Communism had already made the country far more open than many of the apparatchiks liked. In Germany’s case, Brandt’s Ostpolitik was a key factor in familiarizing East Germans with Western values; so was exposure to German TV: Dresden was one of the less popular places to live in, and even officials resisted transfers to Dresden and the surrounding area, because you couldn’t receive West German TV there. The Dresden Elbe Valley was colloquially known as “Valley of the Ignorant” (Tal der Ahnungslosen) in East Germany.

      Conversely, both Hungary’s and East Germany’s economy benefited quite a bit from attracting Western currency; Western governments let that happen. Partly for humanitarian reasons, but also to create exposure of Eastern European countries to Western lifestyle. For example, the East German Genex Geschenkdienst (Genex Gift Service) allowed mail order of Western products — if you paid in West German Marks (i.e., if you had family or friends fronting the money). For example, you could have a Ford or Volkswagen instead of a Trabant — and with a delivery time measured in weeks, not years — if you had West German family willing to pay for it. While that provided a modest influx of hard currency for East Germany, in the long term it had a much stronger subversive effect; it created not only a two-class society, but also gave East German citizens direct points of comparison.

      1. Cubans actually have a lot of exposure to “Western influence.” There are many tourists from Europe and Canada, and not a few from the US. I think it’s the major source of foreign currency. Tourism jobs, which earn tips at non-Cuban levels, are among the most sought after. The economy is loosening a bit, with individuals now allowed to open small businesses. This may be an irreversible trend.

        As for baseball, you could ultimately put a major league team in Havana. The city has a population of 2 million, and Cubans are fanatical baseball fans. Even now, Cuban baseball is quite good. Some players have made the jump directly to the majors.

  5. I used to be a strong fan of the embargo, because it won me the admiration of my friends when I smuggled Cuban cigars into the country and gave them as gifts.

    Now? Nobody I know smokes any more, and I never did. So I suppose I hope that Keith is right.

    But Keith is wrong in one detail. It is not all revanchism by exile geezers; there are some benjamins involved as well. The geezers still (think they) have claims to the property expropriated by Castro in the 1960’s. They’ve managed to get some US law to support these claims (e.g., Bacardi.) I doubt that their children will relax their vigilance, even if it is no longer particularly personal. The ever-persistent Holocaust claims are a sad reminder of this. (Yes, trolls, I am a son of survivors, so if you want to get ad hominem, you’ll have to trot out the “self-hating Jew” line.)

    1. I don’t like the Holocaust claim comparison, because there’s a big difference between expropriating property to solve a massive inequality problem (something we even did to a minor extent in this country in the Midkiff case) and expropriating property as part of a genocide. I think there’s a strong argument that the former shouldn’t be actionable at all, especially in Latin America where the initial property distributions were so unfair and so skewed, while the latter should basically have no statute of limitations at all.

      1. Typically governments “solve massive inequality problems” by leveling everyone but the government down, and I don’t believe Cuba was any particular exception. What IS it with the left’s love affair with dictatorships? Envy that you haven’t managed to do the same here?

        1. I don’t think Cuba, or Latin America in general, provides evidence that love affairs with dictatorships are primarily a left-wing phenomenon.

        2. I don’t love Cuba’s dictatorship. I hate it. If you want to talk about torture, human rights, lack of elections, one-party (and one-family) rule, etc., I think the Castros have plenty to answer for.

          But expropriation of property? ANY government that wanted to solve the problems of Batista era Cuba was going to have to do that (and a lot of Latin American NON-dictatorships did it as well). That’s like criticizing Castro for kicking out the Mob.

      2. There is a moral distinction, and I’m not too far from Dylan on the one he drew. But that wasn’t the point I was trying to make. Let me try two equations.

        “Never forget”+time=forget.
        “Never forget”+time+money=never, ever, ever forget.

  6. Something President Obama could do on his own, as a first step or trial balloon, that would have the benefit of doing justice (greatly delayed), would be to pardon the Cuban Five – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cuban_Five and http://www.freethefive.org/. These men were set from Cuba to Florida to keep track of Cuban exiles who were plotting, and often actually launching, attacks on Cuba and Cubans. The FBI knew they were in Florida. Sometimes the Five would tell the FBI about drug deals being engineered by exiles. But when it became politically convenient, they were arrested on absurd charges – and they have been in jail for 15 years – well beyond any reasonable sentence even if they had been guilty.

    So: send them home. Worry about general relations later.

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