Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
It is only a matter of time before Cuban communism collapses. While the date of its demise is obviously unknown in advance, it can be expected sooner rather than later. Fidel Castro still seems determined to hold back history but, with the death of the Soviet Union, his last hope for a conservative leadership in Moscow to rescue Cuba’s crumbling economy may also have died. The end of Soviet patronage has left Castro with a dilemma: to avoid challenges to his continued rule and to revive Cuba’s flagging economy he must relinquish some control, but his domestic opponents could try to use the momentum of reform to force him from power. As 1991 drew to a close Castro still had not found a satisfactory solution to his problem.
The island’s economic disintegration was accelerating at a breathtaking pace. Aid from the former Soviet Union, which was already drastically reduced, should now disappear entirely. Castro’s attempts to attract foreign capital to replace Soviet subsidies are likely to be too little, too late. Tinkering with the design of Cuba’s outmoded communist system may postpone Castro’s day of reckoning, but fundamental economic and political changes seem increasingly unavoidable. The most interesting question now is whether Cuba will be able to avoid violence and experience a peaceful transition from a communist dictatorship to representative democracy.
The history of the Cuban Revolution is in great part the history of Cuba’s growing dependence on Soviet economic and military aid. By the beginning of the 1990s almost three quarters of Cuban imports came from the Soviet Union, principally Russia, the Ukraine, Byelorussia and Kazakhstan. The most important import was petroleum. Until 1991 the Soviet Union furnished virtually all, and often more than, the estimated 10 million tons of oil Cuba used annually. In return Cuba exported to the Soviets sugar, some citrus, tobacco and nickel.
Yet Cuba’s exports never came close to balancing what the island received from its patron: the Soviets overpaid Cuba for its sugar; the Cubans underpaid the Soviets for their petroleum. While estimates vary on the value of these Soviet subsidies, the consensus ranges between $3.5 billion and $4.5 billion per year, which made Cuba the number one recipient of Soviet aid by the late 1980s. In return the Soviet Union got an invaluable political and military ally only 90 miles from the United States. Cuba also advanced Soviet interests in the Third World by training and arming Marxist guerrillas and helping prop up governments friendly to Moscow.
Cuba’s dependence on Soviet subsidies made the island highly vulnerable to economic and political shifts in the Soviet Union. Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms posed an immediate economic threat to Cuba. As economic decision-making in the Soviet Union was decentralized, newly empowered state enterprises and republics were immediately reluctant to trade with Cuba because of its lack of hard currency. Perestroika also disrupted Soviet production and distribution processes, causing exports to Cuba to arrive late or not at all. Shortages of essential goods, already being felt on the island by mid-1989, had by the end of 1991 become acute. The decisions by Moscow and republican leaders were accelerating the breakdown of the Soviet economic system and, by extension, that of Cuba as well.
Soviet cargo ships expected in Cuba by January 1991 did not arrive until May. By September no rice had reached the country, only 16 percent of its normal supply of vegetable oil and less than half that of butter. A variety of raw materials, chemicals and much of the fertilizers that Cuba uses in sugar production also failed to arrive. Shipments of wood, sheet metal, steel beams, glass for construction and paper had decreased substantially, as had exports of spare parts for Cuban buses and machinery.
Moscow’s refusal in 1990 to sign a new five-year trade agreement with Cuba marked the beginning of the end of the two nations’ "special relationship." Instead trade relations were to be negotiated yearly. Moreover, starting in January 1991, the value of trade between the two countries was calculated in dollars, not rubles. Cuban sugar traded at 25 cents a pound, down from the previous year’s figure of 40 cents. As a consequence Cuba’s ability to import food and energy deriving from sugar exports to the Soviet Union was also cut nearly in half. After the failed August 1991 coup Gorbachev made an already bad situation for Cuba worse. He announced that any new trade agreements would reflect Soviet commercial interests and require Cuba and other trading partners to pay in hard currency at market rates. That development effectively eliminated all trade subsidies to Cuba beginning in 1992.
Cuba’s problems were further compounded by the transfer of mineral rights to the former Soviet republics. These decisions severely disrupted both the production and export of petroleum from the former Soviet Union and raised the possibility that sometime in 1992 Cuba might stop receiving oil altogether. But Soviet shipments of petroleum to Cuba had declined even before those events. Cuba received 13 million tons of petroleum from the Soviets in 1989, 10 million tons in 1990, and for 1991 the total was expected to fall to seven million tons. In a December 1991 interview with Senator Larry Pressler (R-S.Dak.) Castro painted an even worse picture, claiming that Cuba had received less than one third of the oil it had anticipated for the year.
The impact in Cuba of the disruption of Soviet-Cuban trade relations and Soviet aid is starkly apparent. Long lines form to purchase increasingly scarce goods, and the list of rationed items continues to grow: eggs, fish, canned meat, biscuits, cream cheese, rum, undergarments and soap have all been added since late 1990. Medicinal herbs are replacing unavailable medicines. Even the government-controlled press has been affected; paper shortages have closed down some publications and caused others to appear less frequently.
Energy shortages have also caused problems. The government now rations liquid gas for cooking and has reduced electrical power generation, producing repeated blackouts in Havana and other cities. Factories have been closed and construction projects canceled. Sugar destined for the old Soviet Union has been unable even to reach Cuba’s own ports because of inadequate transportation. Pushcarts have begun to replace garbage trucks in Havana, and shortages of gasoline and spare parts have idled buses and tractors. As substitutes, Cubans have begun using old model surplus bicycles imported from China, and the government is domesticating 100,000 bulls as beasts of burden.
The energy and other shortages have translated into declining economic output and growing unemployment. Even the black market, which had prospered as the official economy began to encounter problems, is now disappearing in parts of the island because of decreasing production and growing transportation problems. The Cuban peso has become virtually worthless, and the dollar is the only currency accepted by those having anything to sell. Prostitution, nearly eliminated in the early years of the revolution, is making a comeback. Students and workers wait outside enterprises catering to tourists, seeking clients who will take them shopping in dollar stores reserved for diplomats, tourists and Communist Party officials.
Cuba’s severe economic disintegration was not inevitable. Most other Latin American nations are today moving from the "lost decade" of the 1980s to the "growth decade" of the 1990s. But as the Soviet economy began to unravel, Castro increasingly assumed regressive inward-looking policies as a course for Cuba’s economic and political survival. He could instead have undertaken many of the same economic reforms that his Latin neighbors instituted when confronted in the early 1980s with a challenge similar to his own: the debt crisis.
Rather than Soviet aid, those countries had become dependent on commercial bank loans to sustain inefficient, closed, corrupt and statist economies. When the lending ceased, Latin American governments, both military and democratic, ultimately concluded that profound economic restructuring, as well as austerity and stabilization programs, provided the only long-term solution. They embarked on a series of reforms that privatized state enterprises, expanded their tax bases, lowered tariff and nontariff barriers to trade and invited direct foreign investment.
Those reforms went against what had been the prevailing ideology of economic development in Latin America since the 1960s. Few would have been implemented if the shortage of capital that resulted from the debt crisis had not forced a change in the region’s thinking and behavior. The immediate impact of the debt crisis and the change of development strategy was Latin America’s so-called lost decade of the 1980s. The region’s economies stagnated and standards of living dropped precipitously. The 1990s, however, are turning into Latin America’s "growth decade." The reform process of the 1980s has begun to bear fruit in the form of more efficient and productive economies and growing investor interest in the region.
Castro chose not to follow the lead of his Latin neighbors because he correctly concluded that by doing so he would jeopardize his total control over Cuba’s economic and political systems. The Latin American development model has created new centers of political and economic power independent of the state. That is precisely what Castro was determined to avoid. As the Cuban economy declined, he instead chose an eclectic mix of policies aimed to reduce his immediate vulnerability to political challenges. Those policies were designed to allow him over the long run to attract capital without capitalism, thereby ensuring the survival of his personalistic dictatorship.
Castro’s name for the crisis that had gripped his nation was the "special period in a time of peace." Correctly realizing the explosive potential of growing food shortages, the regime complemented food rationing with efforts to make Cuba more self-sufficient in food production. This increasingly involved transporting tens of thousands of workers, mainly white collar, from the cities to the countryside, where they would "voluntarily" help with the harvest. Plans are now under way to construct new towns in rural areas to enable such workers to live and work there permanently.
At the same time the government launched a series of centrally planned campaigns to increase production of basic foodstuffs. An effective way of expanding food production would have been the reinstatement of the farmers markets that were tolerated briefly in the 1980s and spectacularly increased agricultural production. That experiment was abruptly ended because of the threat it posed to Castro’s control of the economy. There was some expectation that the October 1991 Fourth Party Congress would reinstate the markets, but Castro apparently rejected the idea. Nor was he willing to allow peasants on cooperative farms to use a portion of their land to produce crops of their choosing. His decision to go the central-planning route may produce a short-term increase in food production, but at the expense of other nontargeted sectors of the economy. That was the case in 1970, when Castro tried and failed to increase sugar production to an unprecedented 10 million tons.
In the meantime Castro is trying to gain hard currency by building up the tourist industry. The government has entered a number of joint ventures with foreign firms. Cuba supplies land, basic materials, labor and logistical support; foreign investors provide engineering, design and other technical expertise, and capital goods, which can enter Cuba duty free. The government also allows tax-free repatriation of profits during the initial stages of the project and, in at least one case, is allowing its Spanish partners to control the hiring and firing of the labor force. What the government does not allow, however, is contact between tourists and ordinary Cubans. A policy of "tourism apartheid" excludes Cuban citizens, but not the political elite, from the new resort facilities.
To date the biggest project involves a Spanish hotel firm investing $150 million to build three hotels and a shopping center. According to the Cuban government, 340,000 tourists visited Cuba in 1990 and spent nearly $250 million. The largest number came from Canada, followed by Germany, Spain and Italy in Europe and Mexico, Brazil and Argentina in Latin America. Cuba hopes to build about 5,000 hotel rooms a year to increase the current 13,000 rooms to 30,000 by 1995.
In a further effort to earn hard currency the Cuban government is trying to diversify its export base by increasing its output of biotechnology products and pharmaceuticals. In 1990 Cuba reportedly earned more than $80 million by exporting to Brazil large quantities of the meningitis-B vaccine. Exports of pharmaceuticals are expected to generate more hard currency in 1991 than Cuba’s traditional exports of tobacco and cigars. In a related effort Cuba is also encouraging "medical tourism." Some 2,000 individuals came to Cuba in 1990, for example, to receive treatment for eye, heart and other problems. Castro blames the lack of comparable health care for Cuban citizens on the U.S. embargo.
Cuba has also begun to allow foreign companies to prospect for oil. A six-year contract was signed in December 1990 with a French consortium composed of Total Petroleum and Compagnie Europeéne des Pétroles, and exploration began in March 1991. The agreement reportedly allows the consortium to own more than 49 percent of the joint venture. In April 1991 the Cuban government and Petrobras, the Brazilian state oil company, finalized a memorandum of intent to cooperate in exploring for oil in Cuban waters. If oil were discovered, it would help solve Cuba’s energy shortage and increase its hard currency earnings through exports.
Finally, Cuba has been searching for new trading partners, focusing on China, Japan, the Caribbean and Latin America. Its efforts have met with some success in Mexico and Venezuela, whose governments are providing new credits for their companies to trade with Cuba. Increased trade with CARICOM, the 13-member Caribbean Community and Common Market, has been thwarted by Cuba’s refusal to recognize the government of Grenada, which came to power in the aftermath of the 1983 U.S. invasion.
These efforts to offset the loss of Soviet aid will likely prove inadequate. The government’s expectations regarding the growth of the tourist industry seem highly optimistic. Foreigners currently visiting Cuba are not big spenders and are not returning. Furthermore foreigners investing in Cuban tourism are positioning themselves for the post-Castro period, when the economy is expected to open up, and as the Cuban government moves closer toward collapse the increased risk should begin to deter further large investments. Even with new investment laws that allow free importation of materials and supplies as well as liberal labor practices, it will be difficult for Cuba to make the substantial investments in human capital and infrastructure to enable it to compete effectively with more open Caribbean island economies.
The search for oil also will probably not pay off rapidly enough, if at all. It normally takes at least five to six years to bring in a petroleum field. A bigger field takes even more time, and companies prospecting off Cuba are undoubtedly looking for fields large enough to supply more than just the island. The fact that the U.S. embargo keeps American oil companies from prospecting also means that foreign companies can strike harder bargains with Cuba, thereby reducing Cuba’s share of any profits. The same principle holds regarding trade agreements that Cuba might sign on other commodities.
Castro himself has implicitly acknowledged the possibility that his efforts are doomed. In September 1991 he began speaking of a "zero option," meaning zero petroleum, due to a total cutoff of Soviet supplies and Cuba’s inability to replace them through other purchases or barter. Under the zero option food would be severely rationed and distributed in communal soup kitchens. Electricity would be rationed as well, and no petroleum would be allowed for private use. The government would also drastically reduce its investment in health and education. The timing of the announcement of the zero option, following close on the failed Soviet coup in August, was not fortuitous. Subsequent events in the former Soviet Union have made the zero option scenario all the more plausible.
Cuba’s deteriorating economic situation is increasingly being translated into political discontent. The government has responded to those political rumblings in a number of contradictory ways. Some government actions can be read as signs that the regime is loosening its hold on the population; others indicate that the government’s ability to tolerate dissent remains severely limited.
One sign of growing unhappiness is the substantial increase in the number of people who are trying to escape Cuba. In 1991, 2,417 Cubans made it over the dangerous seas in small rubber rafts or boats to Florida. The figure for the entire preceding year was 467. The number of high-level defectors has also continued to rise. They include a well-known baseball player and a jazz musician, former government officials, the brother of Raúl Castro’s wife and a MiG pilot who defected to Key West in his plane, to Washington’s embarrassment.
Organized political opposition in Cuba, though still illegal and not yet a serious threat to the regime, is nonetheless becoming more overt. It is also broadening its focus from an almost exclusive concern with monitoring human rights violations to new efforts to bring about a peaceful democratic transition. Compared with an earlier period, one observer found "many more groups, with their members more ready to give their names and sign appeals and press releases." Elizardo Sanchez, one of Cuba’s leading dissidents and head of the Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, believes that several hundred dissidents have organized themselves into small groups of trusted friends, rather than larger groups, in order to prevent infiltration and repression by the government.
The failed Soviet coup, however, encouraged many of Cuba’s internal dissident organizations to form two major coalitions. Both favor a peaceful transition to democracy via elections and a market economy. Their main differences are tactical and, to a lesser extent, ideological. The more conservative group, the Cuban Democratic Coalition, opposes dialogue with the Castro government. The other group, the Cuban Democratic Convergence, is more social democratic and favors negotiations among all Cubans in order to achieve a democratic transition.
The Cuban Committee for Human Rights, led by the prominent dissident Gustavo Arcos Bergnes, remains in contact with both groups, but so far has joined neither. In September, however, Arcos and Sanchez, whose human rights group forms part of the Cuban Democratic Convergence, met for several hours in an effort to find common ground. The meeting was significant because the two men, Cuba’s most important dissidents, had long been considered rivals. Arcos, in fact, was briefly jailed by the government in January 1992.
The fact that the dissidents have not united around a single leader is probably for the best. Were they to do so, that leader would probably suffer the same fate as General Arnaldo Ochoa, a military hero whose growing popularity posed a threat to Castro and who was consequently executed after a Stalinesque show trial in the summer of 1989.
The greater activism of the internal dissidents encouraged exile groups to formalize contacts with them shortly after the failed Soviet coup. The Cuban American Foundation, the powerful exile group led by Miami businessman Jorge Mas Canosa, has ties with the Cuban Democratic Coalition. The Madrid-based Cuban Democratic Platform, led by journalist Alberto Montaner, and the Miami-based Independent and Democratic Cuba, led by former comandante and political prisoner Huber Matos, each have ties with the Cuban Democratic Convergence.
The Catholic Church has also stepped up its activities. The archbishop of Havana has demanded religious freedom in a handbill distributed to his congregations, and he appealed to the Cuban people to refuse, on ethical grounds, participation in the "rapid deployment forces" that the regime has organized to repress even its peaceful opponents. In early December the archbishop also delivered a statement calling on the authorities to make the necessary changes in order to avoid violence.
So far, however, there has been little violent opposition to the government; the costs of rebelling still seem higher than continuing submission to Castro’s increasingly irrational policies. This could change as the economic situation continues to deteriorate. Tempers are already short on the long ration lines; incidents of theft and "antisocial" criminal behavior are increasing. The latter includes "hoarding" and "profiteering," defined by the government as buying and selling goods on the black market. The regime has chosen to deal with these problems by strengthening the national police and distributing weapons to selected workers in factories, warehouses and other facilities to protect materials produced or stored there.
The government has also organized peasant vigilante brigades "to preserve order" in the countryside. And it is using the so-called rapid deployment forces, modeled after former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega’s "dignity battalions" and the Sandinista’s infamous "turbas," to harass and beat up people whose "crime" is to support human rights and democracy. Incidents of violent crackdowns, hasty and often public trials as well as imprisonments have escalated, especially since the failed Soviet coup.
By the end of 1991 several leading dissidents were in danger of being formally charged with treason. One of them, María Elena Cruz Varela, a poet and leader of Alternative Criterion, was forced by central security agents to eat some of her own political writings in the presence of her daughter.
Repression has not, however, been the government’s only response. The regime has also made a number of political changes that seem to point in a more liberal direction. The party congress recommended direct election of members of Cuba’s national assembly, who are now chosen by municipal councils. The congress also lifted the ban on party membership for religious believers who do not oppose the government and significantly reduced the size of the party bureaucracy. The election of a new party central committee lowered its average age to 47 from 52. The party congress also recommended allowing handymen, carpenters, plumbers and other tradespeople to work for their own profit.
These reforms are less substantive than they may appear. The direct election of the national assembly would not transform it into a body of independent actors: political power is still concentrated at the top. Allowing some tradesmen to become capitalists is not nearly as important as the reform that was rejected—the reinstatement of independent farmers markets.
If the congress was a test of strength of the party’s so-called reformers, such as Carlos Aldana and Roberto Robaina, the inescapable conclusion is that they are still very weak or not reformers at all. This is particularly true regarding Aldana, who lambasted Cuban dissidents in a lengthy speech in late December. While the combination of these reforms could generate some new support for the regime, it remains doubtful that, alongside stepped up repression, they will be sufficient to tamp down Cuba’s growing discontent.
Castro’s foreign policy suggests that the Cuban leader shares these doubts. While adjusting Cuba’s economic and political systems to cope with the nation’s growing crisis, he also hoped to get his Latin American neighbors to provide him with subsidized oil and support for his efforts to end the U.S. trade embargo in place since 1960.
Castro made an unscheduled appearance in late October at a meeting of the presidents of Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia in Cozumel, Mexico, where he reportedly sought help for his disintegrating economy. Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari said after the meeting that there would be "no special relationship" concerning shipments of Mexican or Venezuelan oil to Cuba. Castro’s only satisfaction was when Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez called on the Bush administration to end the U.S. embargo.
Cuba’s attempt in the fall of 1991 to get the United Nations to declare the U.S. trade embargo illegal also failed. Latin American governments indicated that they would either vote against the Cuban resolution or abstain. Moreover the United Nations would have difficulty explaining why, if trade embargoes were illegal, it had not condemned the Arab embargo of Israel. Seeing the handwriting on the wall, the Cubans thus decided not to allow their resolution to come to a vote.
Castro cannot be faulted for hoping that his Latin neighbors would help him. In the past they tended to downplay the dictatorial aspects of his rule, choosing instead to emphasize his nationalism, anti-imperialism and dedication to social and economic equality. They also preferred to blame U.S. policy toward Cuba, instead of Castro’s own behavior, for Cuba’s problems.
But times have changed. Today Latin America is governed almost entirely by democratically elected presidents who do not look kindly on military governments, of right or left. The advent of a new international economic and political order has also made it important for Latin America to nurture its relationship with the United States. With the end of the Cold War and the communist threat, many Latin nations fear Washington may choose to ignore the region. The new weakness of the Latin American left also makes it less necessary for Latin governments to support Cuba in order to placate internal left-wing critics.
This does not mean that Latin American governments and the United States agree on Cuba. The region itself is divided, as was evidenced in November at the Group of Rio summit held by Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela in Cartagena, Colombia. While publicly expressing "profound concern about the situation and future of Cuba," the Latin nations privately disagreed over pressing Castro to hold democratic elections. Argentina and Uruguay, for instance, favored such a course; Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela opposed it. But the fact that any Latin American government was willing to pressure Castro is a change from even the recent past, when criticizing him was considered playing into the hands of the United States—to be avoided at all costs. This new willingness of at least some Latin leaders to take a stand against Castro sends him an important message: if he wants Latin America behind him, he will have to change.
The economic and political changes Castro has made are encouraging mainly to those who wish to give the Cuban leader the benefit of the doubt, but the numbers of those willing to do so, both inside and outside Cuba, are rapidly diminishing. So are Castro’s options.
Until the end of the Soviet Union, he could hold on to the possibility that the Soviet army would remove Kremlin reformers and continue giving Cuba military and economic aid. Even if traditional levels of economic aid could not be restored, Castro could at least count on continued military aid to enable him to buy time through the selective use of repression.
The repressive option now looks increasingly likely to be Castro’s short-term response, but in the long run it will probably be untenable. Soviet military aid, which was estimated at $1.5 billion annually, has been discontinued. In September Gorbachev announced that the Soviet Union would pull its 11,000-man military brigade out of Cuba—a figure subsequently explained to include 3,000 combat troops, 3,000 signal intelligence personnel, 3,500 military advisers and some civilians in military-related roles. Although a visit to Cuba by a Soviet general to discuss withdrawal plans ended inconclusively, the disintegration of the Soviet Union shortly thereafter made the issue moot. It seems highly unlikely that the now independent republics, particularly Russia, will choose to maintain a military relationship with the Castro government.
This breakdown in patron relations constitutes a short-term psychological blow for the Cuban military, which suddenly finds itself cut off from its traditional source of weapons, training, technical support and intelligence. But this may be its only important impact, given the legacy of fear in the army after the Ochoa execution and the continuing difficulty of organizing a coup in a military organization penetrated by informers.
In the longer term, however, it should cause the military to think twice before firing on the Cuban people in the event of a mass demonstration or before going along with any other strongly repressive response to Cuba’s problems. It could also lead to a coup if the military were put in a position of having to choose between shooting Cuban demonstrators or continuing to back a ruler who seemed intent on martyring not only himself but his fellow Cubans as well.
If a coup were to occur, however, Cuba’s need for economic aid and investment, from the United States in particular, combined with pressures for democracy not only from within Cuba but also from the United States and Latin America, would more likely cause the military to promise elections and a short transition to democratic rule.
A better alternative for Castro is to take the lead himself in opening the Cuban economy and promising democratic elections. He could conceivably get Washington to enter into a bargaining process whereby, in return for some reform, the United States could be persuaded to lift a part of its embargo. Castro would then attempt to hedge that reform process after political realities in the United States made it difficult to reimpose the embargo at full strength. Having succeeded in partially reviving his economy while skirting real political change, Castro would possibly be home free.
Such a scenario, however, entails obvious risks for Castro. He could discover at a certain point that he, not Washington, would be unable to backtrack. Castro would then be obliged to carry through on a promise for elections, which could even lead to his own defeat. But Castro’s love of power and his often expressed disdain for elections and western-style democracy, which he recently called "complete garbage," obviously makes this an outcome he will seek to avoid at all costs.
A peaceful transition to democracy via free and fair elections is precisely Washington’s preferred scenario for Cuba. On May 17, 1991, President Bush outlined his conditions for "a significant improvement" in U.S.-Cuban relations: free and fair elections; the right to opposition political parties; a free media with opposition access and international oversight of the electoral process. Bush also asked that Cuba allow the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to investigate alleged abuses and that Havana free political prisoners as well as end aid to revolutionary movements in other countries.
The Bush policy, for all its broad bipartisan support, has been criticized by both left and right in the United States. Liberal critics want the United States, rather than Cuba, to take the first step in improving relations by at least partially easing the trade embargo. They argue that the embargo has not worked for more than thirty years and it is time to try something new. A variation on that theme is the contention that Castro deals better with adversity than with economic prosperity, which would prove more destabilizing to him than continuing economic hardship. A more liberal approach, they say, would avoid violence and allow for Cuba’s peaceful transition to democracy. In addition it would reduce U.S. vulnerability to another mass influx of Cubans such as that in 1980, when Castro opened the port of Mariel, leading to the exodus of 128,000 Cubans, including many criminals, to Florida.
Most of these arguments, however, are no longer relevant. The embargo did not work precisely because the Soviet Union was determined to prop up the Castro government. Now that Soviet support has collapsed, the embargo can finally have its full impact. The same argument can be made regarding Castro’s ability to deal with adversity, which may have been true while he could count on Soviet backing. There can be little doubt, however, that Castro’s problems would be reduced with access to the hard currency that a resumption of U.S. trade would provide. And while a mass exodus of Cubans to Florida in 1980 caused more short-run problems for the United States than for Cuba, the reverse would be true in the 1990s. Given Cuba’s loss of Soviet aid and its already collapsing economy, such an exodus would in fact probably bring down the Castro regime.
Concerns over a potentially violent transition in Cuba due to the embargo seem driven in part by ideology; the same worries were conspicuously absent among many of the same forces that sought trade sanctions against the right-wing South African government. Moreover it is far from certain that the embargo necessarily increases the likelihood of a violent outcome. It could just as easily trigger mass nonviolent demonstrations against the regime, like the vast majority of the demonstrations that overthrew eastern Europe’s dictators, and lead to a provisional government and democratic elections.
If there were a violent transition, however, the Bush administration is already on record as ruling out U.S. military intervention. Instead the United States would probably pursue a variant of its recent policy toward Haiti, when its democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown in a September 1991 coup. That policy entailed joining in a multinational effort under the auspices of the Organization of American States to try to achieve a negotiated solution to the conflict and a restoration of democratic rule.
Conservative critics of current U.S. policy, in contrast to their liberal counterparts, want the United States to tighten the embargo in order to accelerate Castro’s fall. They point specifically to a 1975 loophole that allows foreign subsidiaries of U.S. corporations to trade with Cuba. In 1989 foreign subsidiary exports equaled $169 million, and purchases from Cuba were valued at $162 million; for 1990 those totals rose to $533 million and $172 million, as U.S. subsidiaries sought to fill the gap left by the collapse of Cuban trade with eastern Europe. Opponents thus argue that the loophole is prolonging Castro’s rule by blunting the impact of Cuba’s loss of Soviet bloc trade.
Congressional sentiment clearly falls on the more conservative side. A bill chiefly sponsored by Senator Connie Mack (R-Fla.) that would tighten the trade embargo gathered support in 1991, and a similar but separate bill was drafted by Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), head of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Western Hemispheric Affairs. The second would couple provisions for tightening sanctions, such as denying economic and military aid to countries aiding Cuba, with the promise of a "carefully calibrated" reduction of sanctions if Havana moved toward democracy and respect for human rights.
President Bush has threatened to veto any bill tightening the embargo, on the ground that it would unnecessarily pit the United States against many of its important allies—Canada, Mexico and western Europe—over a law that probably could not be implemented anyway. The president is correct. But there is another compelling reason for not tightening the embargo: doing so would convert what is now essentially a Cuban problem into a U.S. problem.
For the first time since Castro took power, dissidents inside Cuba have begun organizing themselves into broader groups that are more actively challenging the regime to hold elections and begin a transition toward democracy. They have even established a more formal and growing relationship with representatives of the 1.5 million Cubans living outside Cuba. Given Cuba’s history of frustrated nationalism, it would be far better if Cubans found their own way out of the current situation, instead of following the lead of a power they have depended on in the past.
The best U.S. policy thus remains the current policy, centered around continuing the embargo and calling for free elections. It is also the simplest policy for the United States to pursue; it is already in place and for the first time has a chance of being truly effective. It may somewhat prolong the inevitable transformation of the crumbling Cuban system, but not by much. In the meantime it is helping to level the playing field between unarmed dissidents and a heavily armed but increasingly vulnerable government. It may also allow Cubans, in this new age of nationalism, to construct a new Cuban nationalism based on democratic rather than authoritarian values.