With only a week to go until Secretary John Kerry is scheduled to raise the American flag in Cuba, the political divide about American policy towards Cuba is increasing. Republican presidential candidates will have their first debate in which the Cuba issue might emerge. Cuba is a winning topic for Senator Rand Paul whose libertarian position on travel and trade with Cuba is supported by majorities of Democrats, Independents and Republicans.
Paul will be against Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump. Rubio and Bush had made their political career in Miami as champions of the embargo policy. Trump, in his previous attempt to run for the White House in 1999 as a Reform party candidate, paid a servile visit to Miami based Cuban American National Foundation in exchange for the "first hotel in Cuba" after Fidel Castro's fall. He is still waiting.
One resource that Senator Paul can invoke to defend his libertarian approach to Cuba is Ronald Reagan's flexible approach to communist countries in transition. That is what Cuba is today. Nobody can say for sure what Ronald Reagan's policy towards Cuba would be today. Given how dramatically the world and Cuba have changed, the "Great Communicator" policies of the 1980s don't tell us much about how he would approach Cuba today. But it is worthwhile to note that several members of Reagan's team and many of the intellectuals, who inspired his government such as Milton Friedman, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and former Secretary of State George Schultz, criticized Washington's embargo against Cuba.
Never underestimate the liberating power of markets and faith.
When in 1983, he called the Soviet Union, the "evil empire," President Reagan's clarity sent a meaningful message to the democratic world and the many oppressed behind the iron curtain. Everyone should have the right to practice his or her religion, speak their mind, and travel freely. It is certain that Reagan would denounce Cuban communism, but would he support the travel ban and oppose all trade with Havana as Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush do? Reagan's moral approach to foreign policy was multi-faceted. His rejection of communism was never linked to a dogmatic refusal to talk and negotiate. Less than a year after his "evil empire" speech, Reagan used the 1984 State of the Union address to reach out to pre-Gorbachev Moscow.
Reagan's approach to change communism through engagement manifested in his attitude towards Deng's reforms in China. It was during the first Reagan Administration that the United States redefined the People's Republic of China (PRC) as a "friendly non-aligned country." China's decision to de-collectivize agriculture was supported by Reagan as a major step in the right direction. It is not surprising that now John R. Block, Reagan's secretary of Agriculture from 1981 to 1986, has become a major advocate for agricultural two-way trade with Cuba. Block travelled to Cuba and saw some of the market oriented reform taking place in Cuba's agriculture.
Although Reagan was quite consciously aware that Deng was interested in "perfecting communism through capitalism," he understood the opportunity that opening markets would create for the expansion of freedom. It is not a stretch to say that in the presence of Raul Castro's current reforms, Reagan might have opened trade and more exchanges with Cuba's growing private sector.
When President Reagan visited Beijing in 1984, he was impressed by Deng Xiaoping's vision for a post-Maoist China. By that time, the trend toward a market economy had expanded to the cities. Reagan welcomed the move and offered America's help for the modernization program. Trade between China and the United States went from $1 billion in 1978 to $5 billion in 1984. Academic and educational exchanges between China and the United States changed dramatically. By 1985, hundreds of thousands of Chinese came to study in America.
Of course, Cuba is not China or the Soviet Union. But given the success of Reagan's policy in promoting changes in communist countries by supporting non-liberal reformers, it is not farfetched to imagine Reagan suggesting that Washington support Raul Castro's pro-market initiatives; in the hope that economic reform in Cuba would create a constituency for further changes. The second Reagan Administration followed such a course successfully, not only in China, but also in Eastern Europe.
Reagan was also conscious of the liberating power of religion. This is an area of big change in Cuba. For decades, the Cuban state declared itself atheistic and shuttered religious schools and discriminated against the faithful. Religious people were sent to labor camps for a while in the 1960's. But since 1992 State-Church relations improved dramatically. Next September, Francis will be the third Pope to visit Cuba in less than two decades. Ronald Reagan would have never undermined the Pope's work or imposed barriers to contacts between American communities of faith and their brothers and sisters in Cuba. In fact, Reagan welcomed in the White House several Cuban religious leaders including Monsignor Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, one of the architects of the dialogue of the Church with the Cuban state.
Ronald Reagan made deals with Cuba.
The Reagan Administration's policy towards Cuba was complex and different from the ideological zealotry defended by Jeb Bush, Rubio and Cruz. Moral clarity never led Reagan to exclude rational ways of advancing American interests through dialogue. In December 1988, the Reagan Administration brokered a win-win peace agreement in New York to the conflicts in the Southern cone of Africa; between Cuba, Angola and South Africa. The decisive inclusion of Cuba in the negotiations was blocked for months by Elliot Abrams, then Assistant Secretary for Inter-American affairs. Abrams did not report to Secretary of State Schultz and Undersecretary for African Affairs Chester Croker, the Cuban disposition for a dialogue about Southern Africa with the United States.
Eventually, Jay Taylor, then chief of the American interests section in Havana, discovered Abrams' "highly unprofessional behavior" and communicated Cuba's disposition directly to Ambassador Chas Freeman, second to Crocker in the State Department Africa division. Secretary George Shultz, with President Reagan's acquiescence, endorsed Crocker's approach, bringing the Cuban government to the negotiations. By doing so, Shultz took sides with American national interest over Abrams' loyalty to his pro-embargo pals in Florida.
The United States reclaimed a central role as a balancer, contributing to the end of the Angolan civil war and guaranteeing a new energy partnership with Luanda. Fidel Castro's central concerns, i.e., the independence of Namibia and Angola, were guaranteed by American mediation. South Africa managed a peaceful process of reforms that ended apartheid. Abrams, who was one of the main advocates of the disastrous 2003 Iraq war, still writes columns against any rapprochement with Cuba.
Moral but not dogmatic.
The United States' policies must be moral but not dogmatic. America was founded on the principle of a government of the majority with respect for minority rights. The Cold War has been over for almost twenty years. Cuba is off the State Department's list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. There is no national security rationale for restraining travel to Cuba. Embassies in Cuba and the United States are now available for negotiating and advancing common interests, as it happened between Washington and Moscow or Washington and Beijing when Reagan was president.
Democracy is never inevitable but market oriented economic growth provides the most fertile ground for it. The reforms in China demonstrated how market growth can coexist with totalitarianism; but time has shown in Taiwan, Korea, Spain and many other countries that to be efficient, market economies need to release individuals' initiative and guarantee rule of law. It is difficult to keep economic freedom insulated from politics.
As Reagan did with China and the Soviet Union in the 1980's, the United States should support Cuban economic reforms by allowing American travel, investment and trade with the island. In a recent hearing about Obama's policy towards Cuba with Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, Republican Senator Jeff Flake expressed his opposition to the travel ban: "If somebody is going to limit my travel, it should be communists. That is what they do, but not our government." It was a Reagan style, simple, principles based statement.