This week marked a rather historic meeting. That was between United States President Barack Obama and Cuban President of the Council Raúl Castro. This long-awaited summit marked a thawing of relations between the two nations. The United States and Cuba have remained at odds since around 1959, when Fidel Castro (the brother of current leader Raul) and a group of revolutionaries took control of the island nation, overthrowing then leader, Fulgencio Batista.
As the U.S. responded to the policies with everything from the conventional, such as placing trade and travel restrictions on Cuba, to the outlandish, such as the CIA trying to use tricks such as poisoned mustache combs and exploding cigars to try and kill Castro, Cuba responded by embracing the Soviet Union, America’s enemy in the Cold War.
Since then, restrictions have remained in place; travel to Cuba has been prohibited, and trade opportunities are few and far between. Despite being about 90 miles apart, the two countries couldn’t be further away from each other, ideologically. This meeting has been chartered with the hope of beginning to normalize these frosty ties, and has begun to already do so.
Major League Baseball is getting in on the action. During Obama’s visit to Cuba — the first sitting U.S. President to do so since 1928 — the American League Tampa Bay Rays squad is playing an exhibition series against the Cuban national baseball team. The hope is that with weakening restrictions on such things as travel, players will no longer have to defect in secrecy to play in the Cuban league, as they’ve done before.
All of this is well and good, but I urge a small amount of caution in any diplomatic dealings with Cuba. Any fool with a pair of eyes can see that the economic embargo has had a major, but not crippling effect on the Cuban economy. Historic cars still run on the island, and are kept in near perfect condition. People can still get the bare necessities that they need. It is not as if Cuba is one or two more months from collapsing, especially when they have lasted for 50 or so years. Although keeping embargo up as it currently stands is an act of pettiness so pure, so unbridled, that it is unfitting of us as a country to do so, we should not lift all the restrictions just yet.
Cuba still has several major problems that they must address before a free and open partnership is to be a reality. For one, Cubans’ freedom to protest is severely limited. Although the penalties are far less harsh than they used to be, protestors can still be thrown in jail for dissenting. Freedom of the press is also incredibly limited, as sitting President Castro will only allow questions from the press when he feels like it, proving that Cuba still also has a long way to go on that front as well.
What I would propose is a positive reinforcement model. What America needs to do is set a list of milestones that Cuba must reach. As each goal is met, another restriction can then be lifted. As a part of the plan, the U.S. would have the ability to send in outside auditors to make sure that Cuba is following up on its promises to implement a more free and open society. As Ronald Reagan once said during the end of negotiations with the Soviet Union, “Trust, but verify.” What that means in the current situation is that we can achieve normalized relations with Cuba in our lifetime, and begin to break down the barriers between us, but we need to do it gradually, rather than all at once.