THE BLOG
12/31/2014 06:26 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2015

A Tale of Two Countries: Cuba and Vietnam

HANOI, Vietnam -- What do Vietnam and Cuba have in common? Short answer: The Washington Post.

In an editorial that shocked as much by where it came from as by its rather distended logic, the newspaper attacked President Obama's opening to Cuba. It did so because Cuba is still a Communist dictatorship, and argued that giving trade privileges and diplomatic recognition to Vietnam in 1995 had neither lessened the Communist grip there nor improved the human rights record at all.

Wait a minute. Cuba is still very much a Communist country, with severe restrictions on its people. Vietnam has a titular communism and a lot of personal liberty.

Cuba's President Raul Castro has lightened some of the worst of the oppressiveness of the state but not by more than he has had to, given the changes that Western tourism has forced on the regime. It is still oppressive and there is no personal freedom for the Cubans. They cannot travel and when I was last there, a few years ago, they could not even go to the tourist hotels unless they were government officials.

I can say, though, that things were so much better than they had been when I first visited the island in the 1980s. Then the atmosphere was palpably repressive. The block committees for social spying were in full swing, and the good spirits of the people were shackled by the heavy, Slavic presence of the Soviets. It had the feeling of an occupied country.

By contrast, when I visited Vietnam in 1995, and traveled the length of the country, there was none of the sense of almighty government. Relations with the United States had just been normalized, and Vietnam was enthusiastically looking to joining the world. Businesses were beginning to take hold, and the war had been not so much forgotten as put aside.

One thing you did not get at that time in Vietnam was any sense the Marxist-Leninist dogma was affecting everyday life, or that the people felt oppressed. Those from the South, who had fought against the Communists on the American side, did complain of discrimination.

Fast forward nearly 20 years, and I am again in Vietnam. It is bustling, more prosperous, but still primarily a happy country with people free to travel. In other words, much a better place for personal freedom that the Castro brothers Cuba.

The rub is that human rights are abused in Cuba and Vietnam. Both get low ratings from Human Rights Watch on its listing system. It is not a wise thing to criticize the regime in either Cuba or Vietnam: If you do, the prison door will swing open and in you will go. However, I am told by the Dutch Embassy in Havana that they feel things are improving in Cuba. And sources in the U.S. State Department tell me that they think things are slowly getting better in Vietnam -- and that they are already much better than they are in China. One thing I am sure of is that if Vietnam had not been so keen to trade with the West, it would not be as easygoing as it now is.

Next year, an important one for Vietnam, as it is the 40th anniversary of the ending of the war and the 20th of normalization with the United States. The government has ambitious plans to privatize as many as 400 companies that are at present inefficient state enterprises. Vietnamese business people told me they thought the country was on the move, going in the right direction.

Business is very important in "Communist" Vietnam.

By stark contrast Cuba has a subculture of tiny businesses, mostly restaurants, that are constantly harassed by government agents. In Vietnam business is celebrated. There are multi-millionaires in Vietnam. Not so Cuba.

One way or the other, the United States has this choice: Maintain the servitude in Cuba that the brothers Castro have been able to blame on U.S. policy since 1960, or let the force of openness prevail. I can tell you that things are better in Vietnam because of normalization of relations with the United States, and worse in Cuba because that has not happened.

To have open relations with China and to rue those with Vietnam, and to want to keep Cuba in limbo is incoherent and self-defeating.