Waiting for change in Cuba
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When I took up my assignment as chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana in 2011, my biggest question was how had Cuba survived as one of the world’s last remaining Marxist Leninist systems? Strong and sometimes brutal internal controls were important, but in my experience, not sufficient.

When I started my U.S. foreign service career in 1975, generals who came to power by force ruled almost every country in Latin America. Many of those governments used brutal methods to suppress dissent, but ultimately transitioned to civilian rule. Today, only one Latin American leader wears a general’s uniform. It is Cuba’s Raul Castro.

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When the Cuban Revolution triumphed in January 1959 and imposed a Soviet-style system, the United States attempted to remove that government by subversion, assassination, and even invasion. After the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war, we settled into an uneasy standoff and a policy of isolating Cuba from the United States, and as far as possible from the rest of the free world.

 

Unlike the other nations of the Soviet bloc, Cuba allowed hundreds of thousands of citizens who disagreed with their government or were simply seeking a better life to leave for the United States on one-way tickets. This served as a continuing release valve during times of tension. The U.S. isolation policy complemented Cuba’s state-controlled information system and the restriction of normal economic, cultural, and political contact with the non-communist world.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s, many wondered when Cuba would change. Islands by their geography are naturally insulated from outside influences. Our efforts to squeeze Cuba to force change caused no hardship to its leaders. Desperate Cubans risked their lives—not to overthrow their government—but to begin a new life in the United States by launching a raft.

In 2009, the Obama administration began relaxing the U.S. isolation of Cuba, ending the limitations on visits by Cuban-Americans and on financial remittances to their families. These measures began to break down Cuba’s isolation. Hundreds of thousands of family members who visited Cuba were a credible source of information about the outside world, and most of that information contradicted the vision offered by Cuba’s state-controlled media. They dramatically changed the way ordinary Cubans looked at their country.

The normalization of bilateral relations in 2014 and the visit of President Obama in 2016 have accelerated the awareness by most Cubans, even within the Communist Party, that Cuba needs to make fundamental changes to its economy and society to improve the lives of its people.

The death of Fidel Castro marks the beginning of the transition to a new generation of leaders at least 30 years younger than the Comandantes who have ruled for nearly 60 years. Although these leaders do not represent a political break with the Revolution, they see the world differently and will begin the process of bringing Cuba forward into the 21st century.

But how should we respond to brave Cubans who demonstrate in the streets for change at the risk of their liberty, publish their views despite censorship, and seek to engage their fellow citizens in a public dialogue about the future of Cuba?

We should respect their views, defend their honor, engage with them, and encourage Americans of good will to meet with them. Cubans have a right to find their own path to a better future, and all of its citizens deserve to participate in that journey. The United States will speed that transition and be able to influence it by ending the isolation of Cuba.

John Caulfield is a retired U.S. career diplomat who spent nearly 40 years managing complex U.S. relations in Latin America. He most recently served as chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba.


The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.