It was the second click on the phone line that let you know they were listening. I'd stop and wait for my refugee father to speak, but he would halt, say a rushed goodbye, and hang up. There was always another listener, often on the phone, sometimes around the corner. And there was always fear; that’s how they controlled us. It was communist Romania in the 1980’s--not too different from Cuba today. Back then, the West engaged at just the right time. A new poll released just this week by the Benenson Group shows that 71 percent of voters agree that it's the right approach for Cuba today.
Twenty-six years after the collapse of Communism, Romania not only boasts freedom of speech but even outranks the U.S. in broadband connectivity, with some of the fastest Internet speeds on the planet. Access to affordable Internet allowed the Romanian people to connect, innovate, and learn to process the Leninism that ruthlessly clenched every aspect of civil society, and strengthened them to move past it.
Yet status-quo trumpeters, like Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioSunday shows preview: Trump stares down 100-day mark Treasury won’t grant Exxon drilling waiver for Russia Report: Trump privately met with former Colombian presidents in Florida MORE (R-Fla.), would have us believe that the president's update to our Cuba policy is a failure because it hasn't accomplished the goal of a free and democratic Cuba since being announced. Hardliners also dismiss the notion that openness and economic reforms have helped pave the way for democracy and human rights.
With all due respect, they need a history lesson. Mikhail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) led to the fall of the Soviet Union--against the will of many entrenched interests in the system and quite likely against that of Gorbachev himself. Yet these early reforms evolved into freedom of speech and, gradually into freedom of publication and eventually into the fall of the Union. The West would have been foolish to not embrace them.
While no Communist government is the same, and comparisons cannot entirely forecast the future, there are a few lessons that we can draw for the Cuban people. Testifying before a Senate hearing on Cuba last month, Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State reminded the committee that in Poland, open engagement and economic reforms led to a sustainable democratic transition and improved human rights. As he explained, Poles welcomed the exchanges provided by increased people-to-people contact, even if they partially benefitted the government, because they gave their own citizens the chance to interact with the outside world.
Similar examples can be drawn from others like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Beyond embracing economic liberalization, Estonia's singing revolution -- where hundreds of thousands of people linked hands and sang together to stand up to the Soviet military -- testifies to the power of even the smallest openings leading to significant change in the hands of the people. In the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia, dissidents forced major change through a petition calling for the end of censorship and economic reforms.
To underestimate the power of people-to-people contact, the impact of art, culture and innovation is to ignore a large part of history. Estonia, the proud birthplace of Skype, leapfrogged into the digital economy and is now at the forefront of global cyber-security efforts. As leading technologist Sascha Meinrath noted recently, Cuba too is poised to transform rapidly from a dictatorship into a model for participatory democracy in the digital age. The US should be the first to help it do just that.
Companies like Google and Netflix get it. They are already opening the first drip that will lead to floodgates of information, beginning to put the onus on the Cuban government to open up. While their services are still cost prohibitive for many Cubans, they forecast an unstoppable expansion in Internet access on the island. They also remove the regime's excuse that U.S. policies are responsible for denying Cubans access and opportunities.
Despite the skepticism of status quo supporters, progress has already begun to take hold stemming from modest reforms on the island. Cuba's more than 450,000 entrepreneurs are creating pockets of economic and political independence, changing their lives and improving their communities. They are hairdressers, mechanics and taxi drivers. These were the people—not cadres and bureaucrats—who plunged the Eastern Bloc into the modern world and advanced human rights; these are the people who will bring Cuba there.
Congress should not be paralyzed by fear of what the Cuban government might do, let us be driven by the potential of what the Cuban people can do, if we only open up and give them the same chance Eastern Europeans got.
Dragoiu, a communications and political strategist, is co-founder of MDC Strategies where she advises private, non-profit and government leaders, including on public advocacy around Cuba policy.