On Friday, June 16th, Donald Trump reversed the detente between Cuba and the United States led by Obama. Strict regulations on travel were reimposed and the embargo on Cuba was reinforced. Trump’s decisions will inevitably further strain the relationship between the two countries.
Cuba has long been a perpetrator and violator of fundamental human rights. According to Amnesty International, only 25% of the population has access to the internet, making political expression increasingly difficult. Many political dissidents are subjected to arbitrary arrests, released only to be imprisoned again. The judiciary department is state-controlled, leaving executive power largely unchecked. Cuba is one of the countries that has still retained a death penalty.
Despite these violations, democracy has not yet found a home in Cuba. The policy pursued by the United States of isolating and limiting Cuba in its economic opportunities has not yet succeeded in changing the status for Cuban citizens. The opening of relations with Cuba was a calculated decision made by President Obama and it is now at risk.
The easing of tensions has given benefits to the Cuban people. Private hotels opened and small businesses were allowed to develop to appease the increase in tourism. According to a Pew Research poll, 63% of Americans and 68% of Cubans believe that a reinstatement and warming of relations between the two countries is a welcome development.
The promise to maintain the embargo, along with placing more restrictions on Cuba, ignores the facts on what leads to regime change and development of democracy. Attempting to choke out a regime by isolating it economically is not an effective strategy. This has been pursued in Cuba as well as North Korea, Vietnam, Venezuela, Iran, among others. None of these countries have turned to a more democratic system.
Instead, good examples of countries that were able to develop into prosperous democracies exist in countries such as South Korea. South Korea was never sanctioned or isolated, despite its existence as essentially a military dictatorship until 1987, when the state allowed a direct election of the president. It is not a coincidence that, during these years, the country was growing economically at an unmatched rate, where the countries GDP per capita quadrupled from 1980 to 1990 according to the World Bank.
Richard Rhodes, a historian and writer, wrote that increases in economic prosperity coincide with an increase in demands for a more democratic and fair political system. Therefore, when you place an embargo on a country such as Cuba, you are inhibiting the democratic development of the country. In Cuba’s case, it has long, and with some degree has reason to place blame on the United States for the impoverishment of their people.
President Trump’s change of tone from the approach of President Obama’s is one that is short sighted. It focuses on trying to punish a regime, but instead, it will end up with the continued punishment of the Cuban people. To actually help the Cuban people, a pivot should be made to improving the economic lives of many Cubans, which will then, in turn, assist them in their fights for democratic development.