One of the last vestigial rivalries of the Cold War played out another chapter this January, as countries from around the Americas met at the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit in Havana to discuss regional politics and economics, with the notable exceptions of the United States and Canada. Expressing once again the decades-long grudge between the US and Cuba, the CELAC meeting should serve as a reminder that both countries still have ludicrous Cold War policies in place, as well as a moral imperative to change them.
Meeting for the first time without its intellectual parent, Hugo Chavez, CELAC is the response to Cuba’s exile from the US-dominated Organization of American States (OAS). While Cuba is technically an OAS member, it cannot return to full membership within the organization until it ratifies the Inter-American Democratic Charter(IDAS). The OAS has historically been used by the US to harangue Cuba over its lack of civil liberties and democracy, and represents a very North-American biased idea of what the Americas should look like. Accordingly, CELAC was formed to present a different, explicitly anti-imperialist view of the Western Hemisphere.
The speeches of the heads of states lived up to that expectation, with leftism abounding among the speakers. President Raul Castro offered advice on combating poverty alongside criticism of US imperialism. Likewise, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said that the US had been defeated and ought to prepare for the prospect of a Western Hemisphere led from the South.
This call to fight imperialism in the form of US foreign policy is not misplaced. The US maintains a perverse embargo on Cuba, supposedly intended to push back against the authoritarianism of its regime. This ignores the laundry list of authoritarian regimes that are close allies of the United States. Almost all the legitimate criticisms that one can make of the Cuban state – whether about its electoral system which doesn’t allow parties to endorse candidates, its extensive censorship, or its willingness to imprison those who dissent – can just as easily be applied to Singapore, a state with close ties to the United States. Both states claim to be a democracy, and then structure their government so that democracy is impossible. Furthermore, both states make it difficult for outsiders to see the extent of the problem.
Yet one of those states is embargoed by the US, and the other is a major US ally. In this light, it becomes obvious that US relations with Cuba are hypocritical and only accepted because of the lingering memory of the Cold War. Even among the Cuban exile population in the US, traditionally die-hard enemies of the Castro regime, younger people are critical of current US policy.
This is understandable, because the embargo is morally unacceptable. Willfully denying a people resources in the way that US policy does is a horrific way to carry out an old grudge. It is impressive that Cuba has survived so well under such a yoke, and speaks well of its socialist economic programs. Furthermore, the pedantry of the policy is such that it delays democratic change by giving the Cuban government an excuse to continue repressive activities in the name of fighting imperialism. While the embargo is in place, any support the US provides to pro-democracy or civil liberties groups will be tainted and ineffective at accomplishing its goals.
Support for democracy in Cuba is sorely needed. Ahead of the summit, dissident groups made claims of arrests and disappearances from among their members and associates. Protests planned to coincide with the summit did not take place, apparently because activists were placed under house arrest in the days leading up to the conference. Just as the US embargo poisons the legitimacy of its foreign policy towards its Southern neighbors, Cuban domestic policy poisons the legitimacy of the Cuban state.
Like the US, Cuba needs to learn that the Cold War is over. Just as ending the embargo will not lead to a reincarnation of the Soviet Union, allowing for meaningful dissent and democratic participation will not end Cuban socialism. Long gone are the days when the US had leaders who considered socialism the greatest threat to the world imaginable. US foreign policy is far from perfect, but President Obama has no interest in overthrowing Castro. Ending political repression will not lead to massive uprisings. It may lead to less absolute control than Castro is used to, but that is a lesson which should be learnt.
Obviously, these policies are intertwined, and neither is likely to end without the other ending alongside it. What the governments of the US and Cuba must do is make overtures to each other. Negotiations, leading to democratic reforms for Cuba and the end of the embargo by the US, perhaps even working towards Cuban ratification of the IDAS and a return to full membership in the OAS, would be achievable and beneficial. While CELAC serves an important role as a counterweight to the US in the Western Hemisphere, the OAS ought to become a forum for the entire hemisphere, not a bully pulpit for the US. It would be easy enough to end this insane Cold War struggle.