A Year of Raul

03/27/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • David Paul Appell Principal, EnLinea Media, Tripatini.com; author, Frommer's Miami & the Keys

The front pages of today's Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald made a pretty big deal of the one-year anniversary of Raúl Castro's rise to Cuba's top job. In English, "Cuba, Year of Change" catalogues both the past year's flurry of diplomatic activity between the island and a host of influential countries in Latin America and beyond (most notably Russia), and the rising influence of authoritarian-tinged leftists for whom the 1959 revolution is a lodestar. It conveyed the sense that after a half-century largely focused on its great adversary to the north, the powers that be in Havana have started to say, OK, Tío Sam, we're sick of waiting for you, and we're just going to get on with it.

Meanwhile, waiting is what we're still doing up here -- waiting for the Obama Administration to work its way down its list of calamities to the question of how far to go in its promised loosening of the sad joke that is the U.S. embargo. While we wait, it's worth reminding ourselves that not only is the burial of this half-century-old failure the only hope for long-term economic and political liberalization on the island, but that in any case if there hasn't been an anti-Castro uprising by now, there just ain't gonna be one, people.

There are many reasons for that, of course. Yes, a half-century of the Castros has in many respects been a disaster, both for human rights and economic prosperity. And many Cubans would be more than happy to see them and their cronies get the boot. But their survival has been due to more than just snookering us, playing globo-politics, wheedling investment out of the Europeans, and replacing their Soviet sugar daddy with a Venezuelan one.

For starters, the fact that the revolution was homegrown and once overwhelmingly popular -- rather than being imposed from without as it was in Eastern Europe -- lends it a lingering legitimacy and residual support even in the eyes of many otherwise disenchanted Cubans. And by now they realize that much of what the regime says is self-serving and often rather obvious propaganda. But they also believe that despite their own threadbare existence, they could well wind up worse off under the "savage" capitalism they see practiced in the United States, a system that they know provides more opportunities but can also be notoriously pitiless -- and a system, furthermore, now courting collapse. Many Cubans have friends and relatives living here, so they know more about us than you might think -- and that knowledge tilts more than a few toward the drab security of the devil they know.

Now, for whatever reason there's absolutely no controversy about Washington dealing with and even enriching dictatorships -- it's done every single day, from Saudi Arabia to China. So we need to finally get smart and deal with Havana like grown-ups instead of impetuous (and none too bright) brats; continuing the status quo has given us absolutely zero leverage, and instead is only helping the likes of Putin, Ahmadinejad, and Chavez. It doesn't mean having to like a regime that's certainly unsavory in many ways, but rather trying a more productive approach, namely engagement. It does mean accepting the likelihood that any reform will have to be nurtured and encouraged within the current government system.

Even after reading the Herald's front-page reminder that Raul and company ain't goin' nowhere, I don't expect the the most rage-blinded pro-embargo fanatics in Florida's Cuban-American community (and Bushite Congressional delegation) to be moved by mere common sense. Aging and dying but not fast enough, they would much rather remain (and none too smart) impetuous brats, and keep feeding from the troughs of the careers many have made as what I like to call "embargo-industrialists."

Fortunately, these embittered old codgers have been becoming increasingly irrelevant. In the meantime, as the Obama foreign-policy bigfeet wrestle with how to deal with Castroite Cuba in 2009 and beyond, I sincerely hope they'll look to the future, learn from 50 years of failure, and finally do the right and mature thing, beyond even the minor tweaks currently making their way through Congress. Lifting much or even all of the embargo would be a relatively inexpensive gesture that would win accolades around the world, and could help not only Cuba's future liberalization but also to slow the metastasis of leftist authoritarianism in our backyard. Let's just hope the grown-ups are truly in charge now.