64 years later, Castros' Cuba still projects power in Caribbean
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Fidel Castro and a ragtag group of about 150 rebels launched the Cuban Revolution on July 26, 1953. Their poorly-planned attack on an army barracks in the southeastern city of Santiago was quickly and roundly defeated. Within an hour, Fidel, his brother Raul and a handful of rebels fled to the nearby countryside, only to soon be captured and sentenced to prison.

But fortune favored the Castro brothers, and they were released along with other political prisoners two years later. Their next attempt to overthrow the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship also began disastrously in 1956, but their rebellion took hold, and they entered Havana triumphantly in January of 1959.

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What began inauspiciously on a Caribbean island of fewer than 7 million people turned into a political movement like few others in human history. Cuba played a hugely disproportionate role in the Cold War and became a focal point for the contentious relations between the Soviet and American superpowers. Additionally, the Castro policy of exporting revolution led to both failed and successful attempts to overthrow governments in Latin America and Africa, which brought with them tens of thousands of deaths.

 

Sixty-four years later, the Cuban Revolution is still sowing mischief, and the erratic U.S. policy toward the island, centered around a decades-old trade embargo, has done little to prevent the Castro regime’s nefarious influence beyond its borders.

The embargo’s objective was to contain the Castro government and achieve regime change. Despite what my fellow Cuban-American friends in the Senate and House might contend, the embargo has failed miserably to achieve its mission. But, for that matter, so has the policy of engagement and trade with Cuba from other first-world countries.

The regime is as strong as it has ever been, still controlling the island on all levels, continuing to repress the Cuban people and violating many articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Cuban-American conservatives are right, though, when they argue that President Obama’s historic move to reopen relations with Cuba without demanding any significant concessions has been everything but a success. It looked fine on paper because nothing the U.S. had tried had managed to put a dent in the communist government’s policies.

Also, Latin America was still in the midst of the “pink tide,” where most countries in the region had elected left-leaning governments (a trend that’s been reversed) and a rapprochement with Cuba was seen as helping American relations in the hemisphere.

What seemed fine in theory has not worked in practice, mainly because it threw a lifeline to the communists — stimulating the economy at a time when the regime desperately needed help. In fact, it’s fair to argue that the Cubans decided to reopen relations precisely because they knew the island faced its most dire economic challenge since the end of the Cold War.

Back then, in 1989, the Soviet Union had begun to fall apart. The enormous subsidies it had provided Cuba since the early 1960s disappeared, triggering a severe depression, euphemistically referred to as the “Special Period.” In one year, Cuba’s GDP plunged by more than the U.S. GDP dropped during the first four years of the Great Depression. Famine ensued and so did epidemics fueled by malnutrition.

The Cuban economy wouldn’t begin to significantly recover for a decade. It was still struggling when, in 2002, a coup in Venezuela briefly deposed the then-president, Hugo Chavez. Soon after an understandably paranoid Chavez regained power, he chose to tighten relations with Cuba and use the G2, the Cuban Intelligence Directorate, to help him strengthen his hold on the government.

In exchange, Chavez began to send tens of thousands of barrels of oil a day to Cuba, far more than the island’s energy needs. Cuba would then sell the surplus. With oil prices at all-time highs, the profits made Cuba’s economy expand.

All was well and good for the masters of Cuba and Venezuela, if not for their people, until Chavez’s death in 2013. But, soon after his successor, Nicolas Maduro, took over, oil prices plummeted. The Venezuelan economy, more dependent than ever on oil and weakened by 14 years of extreme corruption, mismanagement of the oil industry and socialist policies went into a tailspin.

Seeing the largesse from Venezuela diminishing and, at times, disappearing, Cuba needed another source of hard currency. That’s when President Obama’s thaw in relations came to the rescue and filled the void. As a result, instead of facing another huge economic crisis, Cuba’s GDP soared in 2015, the year that followed the crash in oil prices and the announcement of improved relations (GDP shrunk slightly in 2016 as Venezuelan aid declined and American tourism increases slowed).

Looked at superficially, that wouldn’t seem to be a problem. Some of the economic growth in Cuba generated by the U.S. was trickling down to its impoverished people, while business opportunities related to Cuba were increasing on our side of the Florida Straits. However, the Cuban regime, bound by no promises to the U.S., continued its human rights abuses. Also, the greater flow of tourist dollars to the island strengthened the Cuban military, which controls most of the Cuban economy.

Worse yet, it has allowed the Cuban regime to continue exporting its repressive ways to Venezuela, the country with the world’s largest oil reserves. The countries now have a symbiotic relationship dedicated to keep both dictatorships in power. The Cubans desperately need Venezuela in their corner, with an estimated 21 percent of the island’s GDP involving trade with Caracas.

Maduro, like Chavez before him, depends on thousands of Cuban military and intelligence officials who are in Venezuela to prop up his regime. Many of those Cubans are embedded in the Venezuelan military, working as snitches and hampering chances the armed forces could splinter and support the opposition’s efforts to end Maduro’s dictatorship.

So, 64 years after the Cuban Revolution began with a debacle, the octogenarian Raul Castro effectively controls two countries crucial to American national security, with totalitarian Marxist governments that are tragic anachronisms in the 21st century.

Antonio Mora is a former news anchor for “Good Morning America” and the former anchor of Al Jazeera America’s primetime international news hour. He is a Cuban American who has reported on various occasions from Cuba. He also holds American and Venezuelan law degrees.


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