By Carlos Alberto Monatner
Monday, December 29th 2008, 4:00 AM
On Jan. 1, the Cuban revolution turns 50 years old. Raul Castro, one of
the fathers of that revolution, recently reiterated his desire to talk
with Barack Obama - returning the hand Obama offered repeatedly over the
course of the presidential campaign. If Obama follows through on his
plan, he must do so with eyes wide open.
Raul has three objectives: to gain access to soft credit so he can
import American goods; to attract hundreds of thousands of American
tourists, and to gain the release of five of the 14 Cuban spies captured
in 1999 by the FBI. Nine of them admitted their culpability, made deals
with judges and prosecutors, were given very light sentences and have
already been reintegrated to life in the United States.
Once he attains the first two objectives, Raul would be able to
essentially liquidate what remains of the embargo against his country.
With the third, he would please his ailing big brother Fidel, who is
determined not to die until his "hardest" agents return to Cuba.
Obama - who, since the election, has sent some pretty tough signals to
the world with the national security team he has chosen - should harbor
no illusions regarding Cuba. Ten Presidents before him have bashed heads
with the Castro brothers. It is unlikely that he would be the exception.
The watchword now should be patience. It is probable that, during
Obama's first term, things will begin to change inside the island. The
starting point would be the death of Fidel, who has been slowly expiring
since the summer of 2006. While it is known that most of those in the
structure of power would like a profound reform, the old Comandante, a
stubborn Stalinist, prevents it.
This is important: While Fidel is alive, any significant concession the
Obama administration makes to Havana will be counterproductive. It will
be interpreted as saying, "Fidel Castro is right, and Cuba's
totalitarian model need not change."
But the moment Fidel disappears, timely American intervention - a
goodwill gesture - makes sense, even if it must be made to Raul Castro.
To bolster the reformist forces, Obama should send an explicit message
that the United States is willing to generously help transform the
country into a peaceful and reasonably prosperous democracy.
That must be the objective now: Cuba's peaceful transformation into a
stable democracy with freedoms and respect for human rights. A nation
similar to Costa Rica, with good relations with its neighbors and the
United States; a nation that, far from expelling its people for lack of
opportunities, is able to absorb the thousands of exiles who would
return to Cuba if living conditions were acceptable there.
We should accept nothing short of that, discarding any temptation to
work hand-in-glove in Cuba with a tyranny like the one in China, with a
kleptocracy like the one in Russia, or with a military dictatorship.
That would only postpone the problem, not solve it. For almost all of
the 20th century, the United States played the "our-S.O.B." card
throughout Latin America, and the results were dreadful. After Gen.
Anastasio Somoza came the Sandinistas. After Fulgencio Batista,
communism came to Cuba. Washington preached democracy and protected
It makes no sense to revive that strategy in the post-Castro era.
Instead, after Fidel dies, Obama should gradually reduce the economic
sanctions - provided the dictatorship releases political prisoners or
relieves its pressure on dissidents. He should elevate the rank of the
United States' diplomatic representation to the category of embassy and
facilitate sports and academic exchanges.
But decide right now that we will never settle for anything short of a
vibrant and productive democracy. If we help usher in anything less,
there's no sense even trying.
Montaner is a writer living in Miami. He was born in Cuba.