Exit the Dictator, Exit the Embargo?

In a quiet announcement this morning (h/t Slobokan), Fidel Castro told the people of Cuba he is finally stepping down:

HAVANA (Reuters) – Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro said on Tuesday that he will not return to lead the country as president or commander-in-chief, retiring as head of state 49 years after he seized power in an armed revolution.

Castro, 81, who has not appeared in public for almost 19 months, said in a statement to the country that he would not seek a new presidential term when the National Assembly meets on February 24.

“To my dear compatriots, who gave me the immense honor in recent days of electing me a member of parliament … I communicate to you that I will not aspire to or accept — I repeat not aspire to or accept — the positions of President of Council of State and Commander in Chief,” Castro said in the statement published on the Web site of the Communist Party’s Granma newspaper.

The National Assembly or legislature is expected to nominate his brother and designated successor Raul Castro, 76, as president. Raul Castro has been running the country since emergency surgery to stop intestinal bleeding forced Castro to delegate power on July 31, 2006.

If we can draw an analogy between Mao and Castro, then one might think of Raul as the Hua Guofeng of this story. The non-controversial Hua was chosen by Mao before his death to continue the status quo as China’s supreme leader, but was quickly outmaneuvered by Deng Xiaoping and slowly faded from political prominence at the close of the 1970s. Like Hua in China, Raul is probably not the best possible leader for Cuba, but rather an interim appointment allowed out of respect for Castro. What we should hope for now is for Cuba’s Deng Xiaoping to emerge, and, for its part, the US can do something to encourage the liberalization of Cuba by ending the embargo this year.

Like Castro, the embargo is a Cold War relic that made sense when the Soviet Union could project power through Cuba, and Castro, with Soviet money, could project power into Africa and South America. By all rights, the embargo should have collapsed at the same time as the Iron Curtain, but domestic political concerns — hey Walt and Mearsheimer, where’s your Cuba lobby book? — kept the US from taking this step. Instead, Cuba continued to grow ever-poorer in the 1990 and 2000s, and Castro could continue to point the finger at the US for Cuba’s economic decline.

This is not the same as saying the US is responsible for Cuba being an economic basketcase. It’s just that the embargo allowed Castro to continue with destructive economic policies that saw well-educated Cuban doctors and scientists taking jobs as bellboys in resort hotels. Generally speaking, embargoes only work when the population has the political power to punish their leadership in response to foreign pressures; in other words, the more democratic a nation, the more effective the embargo. This is, frankly, the most important lesson for the West to learn from Cuba as we try to deal with the regimes in Khartoum, Tehran, Harare, and Pyongyang, since in unfree countries, embargoes inevitably hurt most the people we wish to help.

There are a number of reasons why the US should end the embargo now. Just as Sino-US relations warmed as Mao grew closer to death, so too does Castro’s exit from the scene give us a chance to begin anew the Cuban-American relationship. Secondly, ending the embargo and investing in Cuba will undercut the clownish but dangerous anti-American activities of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and, arguably, warm up America’s chilly relations with South America. Finally, because he is in the last year of his presidency and has a Democratic Congress to work with, President Bush should find the political environment favorable to Cuban-American détente. Cubans in South Florida would naturally oppose such a move, and McCain, as the GOP nominee, would likely condemn it, but ironically enough Bush’s unpopularity might prove an asset in this case, since he could reach out to Cuba while his own party credibly distances itself from him, much as Republicans distanced themselves from Nixon in the early 1970s.

The specific details of policy would have to be hammered out by the wonks, though it seems safe to say that the embargo could be ended almost immediately, with investment managed to make sure that US funds aren’t channeled to political fronts — we want to subvert the regime, not prop it up — and that Americans don’t enable capital flight ala Russia in the early 1990s — we want to help the Cuban economy, not tear it down.

The question of the moment is: does Bush have the political imagination to open to Cuba now, and as a lame duck, does he have the political power to bring about such a change?

Update: So much for carpe diem. Pretty damn sneaky for Fidel to step down in an election year, don’t you think?