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Tone Down the “Winners and Losers” Talk on Cuba

The U.S. Congress should help the policy change happen.

March 11, 2015

Credit: Paul Guzzo /

Cuba is the Groundhog Day of the 20th century. That the United States’ policy of isolation and permanent embargo went on into the 21st century is testimony to the endurance of both Americans and Cubans in making a failed policy become a third rail in U.S. domestic policy.

Not that there weren’t attempts at reconciliation over the last five decades. Nevertheless, changes are taking place now that will finally help move the United States beyond the outdated Cold War posturing to the realpolitik that its policy toward Cuba deserves.

Roughly three months have gone by since President Barack Obama announced his policy shift on Cuba. The December 17th announcement, which took so many by surprise, was long in the making. It reflected a cautious diplomacy that ended fifty years of a failed policy.

Almost everyone connected with Obama’s simple logic that if something has not worked after fifty years, it was time to try something new! But creating something new after such a long period of propaganda and disinformation will take hard work on the part of both the United States and the Cuban government.

After 50 years of Cuba’s isolation, it will take time to build trust between the two governments.

Cuban citizens, like Americans, will also need time to absorb the implications of what a political opening will mean, especially if the expectations caused by the December announcement are not matched by positive changes in their daily lives.

The winner-loser mentality of Washington

Yet Washington pundits and talking heads like to characterize things in black and white, winners or losers.

That is why I am so tired of invitations to public events that debate topics about winners and losers in the new Cuba policy. Bombarded by the right, left and center, predicting Cuba’s future has become an overnight growth industry in Washington.

At this stage in what will be a long process of negotiation and posturing, predicting winners and losers is counter-productive.

Both countries are trying to determine the new rules of the game – from opening embassies, to ending the embargo, to actually seeing Cuban citizens benefit from a more open society.

And the debate to end the embargo in Congress has been set up as a winner-take-all arrangement, rather than a sound step to improve the lives of Cubans and improve the economy of a bankrupt nation.

U.S and Cuba – equal blame for bad policy

In this growth industry of public events that are focused on identifying winners and losers, one of the smartest public intellectuals, Mexican historian Enrique Krauze, recently commented in the New York Review of Books that both Cuba and the United States share the blame of bad policy decisions.

But the blame for failure to create an economy that functions lies squarely on the shoulders of Fidel Castro. Quoting Cuban-American economist Camelo Mesa-Lago, Krauze notes the when Castro attempted to mitigate the impact of the loss of Soviet aid in 1993, he implemented a disastrous policy of “rectification.”

But Fidel’s “expansion of rationing, the prohibition of farmers’ markets in the countryside and a decrease in self-employment” made matters worse. Instead of reducing the effects of losing its Russian patron, Fidel’s atavistic approach to Soviet economics actually prolonged “the sudden and terrible suffering of the post-1993 period.

It was not until Raul Castro’s ascension to the presidency in 2006 that these destructive policies were loosened up and an economic transition was begun.

There are many things that one can fault when it comes to U.S. policy decisions about Cuba. Why, after the Berlin Wall fell and we opened our pocketbooks and democracy-building tools to open up Eastern Europe, did we fail to help our Cuban neighbors 90 miles to the south?

U.S. electoral politics, for sure, played a role. But Cuba’s downward economic spiral began right after the revolution. Then its leaders, bolstered by Soviet subsidies, let a country, which once produced almost 80% of its food, import the same amount because of dreadful agricultural policies.

It is not surprising that many of the Cuban diaspora in Miami still seek out Russian canned goods at local groceries for a taste of their past, given the shortages of local goods that so many Cubans experienced during their lives on the island.

This policy shift for the average Cuban, those who have lived in a dictatorship and under a repressive and secretive regime, cannot be stopped. Cuban society has been waiting for a new way forward.

The way forward will take leadership from civil society. It may still put many citizens at risk. Recently, there was an on-line discussion in “Juventud Rebelde,” the Union of Young Communist’s newspaper, that focused on what an election might look like when the party Congress meets in 2016.

Many readers responded by suggesting the need for a more transparent process such as secret ballots and open debate, things that augur change.

But don’t expect the Cuban government to invite the Democratic or Republican Party Institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy to join the discussion any time soon.

A door has opened toward economic change in Cuba

Yet the door has opened to a future that includes a way to incorporate free markets, U.S. investment and, with it all, the benefits that help people gain greater freedom and human dignity.

Private sector groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the major agricultural conglomerates are taking a lead in advocating for changes in the trading rules. Senators from farm states have already made their visits to Havana to show solidarity for an economic opening and specifically for rescinding the embargo. In the end, they will be winners of this policy shift.

But change will not only be about politics, which by definition in a democracy is about winners and losers. The creation of political space is only the first step. Change will also be about the island’s economy.

Enabling the transition to a market economy will take longer. More than think tanks churning up the political waters with questions about who is winning and who is losing in this new political environment, it will take leadership in our legislative bodies to enable future policy to have any teeth, let alone resources.

The U.S. Congress should not fear this change. 63% of Americans supported Obama’s new Cuba policy; 66% support an end to the embargo. Congress must now show with deeds, rather than vacuous debates, that we are serious about closing a chapter on a failed policy.


Change in Cuba will not only be about politics, which by definition in a democracy is about winners and losers.

Change will also be about the island’s economy. Cuban society has been waiting for a new way forward

63% of Americans supported Obama’s new Cuba policy; 66% support an end to the embargo.

Congress must now show with deeds, rather than vacuous debates, that we are serious about closing a chapter on a failed policy.