A few weeks ago, I traveled to Cuba and saw one of the world's most closed societies, a country of many contradictions. On one hand, people were living in crumbling structures, while on the other, the most well-maintained structures were schools and hospitals. Due to the United States' attempts to destroy the regime through an embargo and its resulting effect on the economy, there is minimal infrastructure. This is a double-edged sword in that it makes the U.S. a common enemy of the Cuban people, subtly aiding an authoritarian regime.
Cuba has opened up to some degree of capitalism since 2008 under Raul Castro's leadership, allowing minimal private ownership and independent expenditures. When I was there I saw some of these changes myself, from newer cars on the road, private properties for sale, to young Cubans hoping for a capitalistic country that retains its culture. Despite being a closed country and an autocratic state, the people seem eager to talk about political issues, the need for democracy, and, most importantly, better relations with the Western world.
One Cuban, with whom I spoke, described the mindset of the people as "Fidelist" rather than socialist or communist, believing in what Castro has done, but disdaining the political and lack of personal freedoms for the ordinary Cuban. Many Cubans believe that the revolution benefited ordinary Cubans, although now the government has become inefficient at fulfilling the needs of the community. Despite this repression and inefficiency, the government does provide the basic needs and services for the people as so far as possible. This stands in stark contrast to the regime that preceded Castro.
Although I was undoubtedly sheltered from some of the abuses of the regime by being shown model programs, one Cuban mentioned that he had heard stories of people disappearing in the night never to be seen again. This is all too common in authoritarian states like Cuba, Laos or Eritrea. Despite autocratic rule, the literacy rate and health care may be far above average for a poor country, but the political freedom of ordinary Cubans is significantly below average for developing countries.
Despite political repression suffered by ordinary Cubans, many seem to feel as though there is significant improvement from the days of the past. After public outrage in the 1990s, the government allowed freedom of religion and limited freedom of speech. Many of these issues come down not purely from a failed system, but from a refusal of the United States to end its long lasting trade embargo. Cuba has suffered many hardships from the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s as well, and the collapse has consequently made Cuba one of the poorest nations in the world.
The goal of the embargo was to force Cuba to adopt a representative democracy, something which has backfired. The Castro regime uses the embargo to explain many of the ills of the country and has held on to power through an authoritarian regime. The Cuban economy is nearly stagnant due to the embargo. It is not the regime that the embargo harms, rather it is the people of Cuba who struggle to sustain themselves. The political elites benefit from the embargo, for it provides a political scapegoat. After 50 years of an embargo, there is no reason to think that another 50 years will bring down the regime. We only hurt those without power, not those who actually hold on to power.
The embargo is one of the last relics of the Cold War, along with the DMZ of the two Koreas, a relic that serves little purpose. One could have perhaps make a case that when the USSR was in existence and able to aid Cuba financially and militarily, an embargo would serve as a deterrent. That era is long gone. Cuba is a poor country with no ability to create such weapons. They have enough trouble feeding their people and keeping social services functioning.
As shown by recent political polling, the majority of the American public is in support of lifting the embargo. While Americans have a generally negative view of Castro's regime, they crave political discourse and further openness with Cuba. The end of the embargo would harm the regime, and hopefully bring about a new period of openness for Cuba. Along with this, it would bring power back to ordinary Cubans as opposed to the political hardliners championing anti-us rhetoric. If the United States truly desires democracy in Cuba, the Cuban embargo must come to an end.