For more than 50 years, enmity with the United States has been integral to the Cuban political identity. “A revolution that was not attacked,” Fidel Castro wrote in 1961, “would in the first place not be a true revolution. … A revolution that does not have an enemy in front of it runs the risk of lulling itself to sleep.”
It was as though, in Castro’s mind at least, Cuba had an existential need to have America as its adversary. Over the years, the regime’s confrontation with the United States defined Cuba’s special position in the world and helped the government justify everything from the denial of political freedoms to the lack of consumer goods.
This posture has been so compelling that the Cuban leadership has been deeply ambivalent about any rapprochement with the United States, rebuffing overtures dating back to the Ford and Carter administrations. Indeed, the regime’s arrest of American development worker Alan Gross in late 2009 came within months of President Obama’s declared intention to have “a new beginning” with Cuba. On the day after Obama relaxed U.S.-Cuba travel and remittance regulations, in April 2009, Castro devoted his regular newspaper column to that week’s anniversary of the CIA-directed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961. “That date cannot be forgotten,” he wrote, with only a begrudging mention of Obama’s announcement.
And when Obama charmed his fellow leaders that month at the Summit of the Americas, Castro complained that Obama seemed “conceited.” Gross’ arrest put an end to the “new beginning” for the next five years.
But Fidel was conspicuous by his absence this month, and with his stunning repudiation of decades of U.S. policy, Obama appears to have concluded that playing the enemy role was not serving U.S. national interests or advancing democracy and human rights in Cuba. A new approach is needed, he said, because “these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked.”
Of course, 50 years of engagement with Cuba by every other country on the planet haven’t worked, either. The lack of political liberties is in large part a result of internal forces: fierce repression by a totalitarian security apparatus, the squelching of initiative by a paternalistic state and the widespread cynicism that has come from years of seeing official privileges go first to those willing to mimic the party line.
Though Cuban leaders have won international praise for their public health and education programs, those achievements are dwarfed by their success in overcoming all opposition, both internal and external. Schools and hospitals are woefully underequipped, but the Cuban security services are well financed. Salaries for police officers in Cuba are 50 percent higher than doctors’ or teachers’ salaries, and state security agents are paid even more. No wonder that, over the years, Cuban intelligence and counterintelligence operations targeting the United States have been far more successful than U.S. operations against the island. American intelligence officials have told me that almost every time they have recruited a Cuban spy, he or she has turned out to be a double agent.
This month’s U.S.-Cuba accord brought the news that, 20 years ago, the United States had an intelligence asset on the island, but, no surprise, the asset was caught and imprisoned. That asset has now been freed along with Gross. In return, Cuba won the release of three of its spies convicted in the United States of espionage.
The Cuban government will not be obliged to dismantle its security apparatus as a result of the accord, though it now has less justification for repressive policies. With Obama’s declaration that “it does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse,” he confers long-denied legitimacy on the Cuban government, which has never allowed a democratic election and has been a key ally of rogue regimes from North Korea to Sudan.
Obama says the United States is ready to approve Cuba’s participation in the Summit of the Americas next April in Panama on the condition that representatives of Cuban civil society are allowed to take part. This is another win for Cuba. The previous position of summit participants was that “strict respect for the democratic system” was a condition for attendance. Obama even lauded the Cuban government for sending “hundreds of health care workers to Africa to fight Ebola.”
This recognition by Washington was clearly important to Raúl Castro. In a Dec. 17 speech, he said the dialogue with the United States had taken place “on the basis of sovereign equality.” He told the Cuban people the agreement was reached “without renouncing any of our principles,” and he said that it would support the effort of “updating our economic model in order to build a prosperous and sustainable socialism.”
In his announcement of the policy shift, Obama did not say he had demanded that Cuba agree to an international investigation of the suspicious death in 2012 of Oswaldo Payá, Cuba’s leading democracy activist. A senior U.S. official tells me that the issue was raised but that the Cubans refused to budge. The Cuban government did agree to release 53 political prisoners, and acceded to U.S. demands that the dissidents be allowed to remain on the island and participate in peaceful political activity.
But there is also a potential downside to the new Cuban position. Vicki Huddleston, the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba from 1999 to 2002, thinks Raúl Castro has made a serious miscalculation. “Moving forward on this will jeopardize his regime,” she told me.
If the United States is able to engage with Cuban civil society, with dissidents and with the Cuban private sector, it may succeed where other efforts have failed. A flood of American visitors to the island, U.S. offers of support to the Cuban private sector and the facilitation of more international communication may create expectations that the Cuban government cannot meet – at least not without significant reforms. If it backtracks now on the opportunities the Obama administration has offered, Cubans may react with an anger they have not often displayed.
Both governments are gambling that this new world will suit their respective political interests. In this negotiation, however, there is no win-win: One government or the other is likely to lose.
Tom Gjelten is a correspondent for NPR and the author of “Bacardi and the Long Fight for Cuba.”