Courtesy Reuters

The Cuban Illusion: Keeping the Heat on Castro

Wayne S. Smith compares Fidel Castro’s Cuba to Francisco Franco’s Spain to argue that engagement, rather than isolation, is the best way to promote Cuba’s peaceful transition to democracy and a market economy (‘Cuba’s Long Reform,’ March/April 1996). The analogy is clever but wrong. Since the termination of Soviet aid to Cuba, the U.S. embargo on the island has been the key, often-ignored element pushing Castro toward economic and political reform. Lifting the embargo, as Smith suggests, would ease the pressure on Castro and allow him to avoid difficult choices, tighten his grip on power, and halt liberalization.

Franco was, and Castro is, a Spanish-speaking dictator, but the similarities end there. Castro wields virtually absolute political power on the island, and today’s Cuba has no private business sector of any significance. In contrast, Franco never obliterated the distinction between public and private life, permitting Spanish interest groups limited autonomy. Cuba is also far more militarized than was Spain under Franco.

These differences have implications for U.S. policy toward Cuba. In Spain, nongovernmental groups could benefit from the country’s commerce with other nations. Trade increased the wealth and clout of the private commercial sector, facilitated contacts with democratic societies, and strengthened civil society against the state. In contrast, Castro has pursued only limited economic reform, and his regime, rather than the Cuban people, would be the big winner from looser U.S. restrictions. Cuba’s economy discriminates against its own citizens, who are forbidden to invest. Foreign capital is allowed in only a few sectors of the economy, and private investment in agriculture is unknown. The more relevant analogy for U.S. Cuba policy is Vietnam; Washington relaxed its sanctions against that communist dictatorship only after its economic reform had advanced considerably.


Smith implies that the U.S. embargo is irrelevant to continued Cuban economic reform. He correctly attributes liberalization to the dissolution of the Soviet empire and Cuba’

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