The United States has reversed a decades-long policy (enforced by ten U.S. presidents) that weakened and isolated an unapologetically Marxist regime. In return, the U.S. secured no economic, political, or moral interests from Cuba’s current government, which continues to impoverish, imprison, and terrorize its own people. The reality of life on the island nation is far from the rose-colored nostalgia popularized in American notions of a living museum stuck in the 1950s. Unilaterally changing US policy toward Cuba does nothing for the Cuban people, but does serve to immediately legitimize that nation’s Communist Party rule.


Cuba, an island prison ruined by years of Leninist economics and brutalized by Soviet police-state tactics, has in many ways reached the end of its rope. Pro-democracy protestors are regularly seen—and quickly jailed—in Havana and elsewhere. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba found another source of state funding in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, to the tune of $5 billion annually. Since Chavez’ death, Cuban military “advisors” have helped Nicolás Maduro resist a growing pro-democracy movement in Venezuela. Maduro’s regime has imprisoned opposition leaders and murdered protestors in the streets. Cuba’s aim has been to maintain a lucrative arrangement, but falling petrol prices and growing political instability in Venezuela have upset Cuba’s economic outlook.

Given these realities, many have hoped that the Brothers Castro would finally lose control (or die) and the Communist Party-state would finally collapse. Time was not on the side of Raúl Castro, but then he received a bailout—from the United States.

In return for its promised diplomatic and economic opening, the U.S. obtained the release of two American prisoners, but it bought their freedom at the expense of releasing three Cuban agents, including Gerardo Hernández, who has blood on his hands from his conspiratorial role in shooting down two planes carrying Cuban émigrés. Even the possibility of this prisoner exchange was rejected last year by current Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryBeware language and the art of manipulation Budowsky: President Biden for the Nobel Peace Prize Bishops to debate banning communion for president MORE, “because there is no equivalency.” Indeed. And nothing on that moral score has changed.

Still, hundreds of pro-democracy supporters still languish in jail or under house arrest, the latest in a long line of dissidents who have challenged Cuba’s grave human rights abuses and atrocities. 

Even if more prisoners had been released, that would not change the nature of the regime. According to Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas, “We don’t accomplish anything by freeing 53, a thousand, or ten thousand prisoners if the same laws remain, if the hegemony of the communist party continues, if there is no rule of law.”
 In a bi-partisan manner, Congressional leaders on this issue agreed. For Senator Robert MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezSchumer says Senate will vote on repealing 2002 war authorization The Hill's Morning Report - Biden-Putin meeting to dominate the week Sanders drops bid to block Biden's Israel arms sale MORE, the U.S. policy shift is a “reward that a totalitarian regime does not deserve” and only “perpetuates the Castro regime’s decades of repression.” Senator Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense: Joint Chiefs warn against sweeping reform to military justice system | Senate panel plans July briefing on war authorization repeal | National Guard may have 'training issues' if not reimbursed Senate panel plans July briefing on war authorization repeal Rising violent crime poses new challenge for White House MORE reminded Americans that “Cuba, like Syria, Iran, and Sudan, remains a state sponsor of terrorism.”

The President’s hope that economic cooperation with Cuba will lead to political reform and respect for human rights is a model proven unworkable by the President's own examples of China and Vietnam, where there continues to be no plural party system, no free elections, no freedom of speech, no freedom of religion, no independent judiciary, and where there are widespread human rights violations, including forced labor camps – after decades of growing economic cooperation with the United States. Beijing’s suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong this fall is only the latest in an unbroken record of human rights violations since the ‘opening of China’ in 1972.

Rather than a foreign policy model to replicate, America’s China policy should serve as a cautionary tale about the limits of economic cooperation given contradictory political systems. For his part, Castro appears eager to follow the Chinese model of economic opening and political repression. We can assume that given the current understanding, “normalization” of U.S.-Cuba relations will not translate into political change for Cuba.

The policy shift is also an incalculable blow to the victims of communism killed by the Cuban regime under Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, and Raul Castro, since the United States did not demand justice and accountability for the crimes committed by Cuba’s Communist Party.

In an early sign of future disappointment ahead, the very next day Cuba showed its still true colors by leading opposition against America’s attempts to condemn the documented human rights violations of North Korea, Iran, and Syria—countries Cuba’s ambassador to the U.N. called “friendly countries.” This vote was no small matter for the U.S. and was considered by the State Department to have “directly affected United States interests and on which the United States lobbied extensively.”

Cuba’s defense of Kim Jong Un’s regime is especially brazen given North Korea’s hacking of Sony Pictures and threats of terrorism against American movie-goers this month. The cyber-attack prompted a nation-wide cancellation of The Interview and even bans on showing the movie Team America. Within North Korea and elsewhere, Kim Jong Un’s hacking and successful intimidation of American society is considered a victory against the United States.

The inconvenient fact is that Cuba still sees more of an ally in the murderous DPRK than in the USA. No premature policy shift by the United States changes this fact, but the economic opening provided by the U.S. could help save the Communist Party and secure the Castro brothers’ hold on power. It looks like an ailing but defiant Fidel has lived long enough to see America bow, without giving up a single thing in return. It’s been a good month to be a communist—strike up The Internationale!

Marion Smith is Executive Director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation in Washington, D.C.