With a move toward normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations on December 17, 2014, the war of ideas can now begin. This move by the Obama Administration is seen by some as an unwelcome endorsement of the regime of Raul Castro, or the “propping up of another dictatorship,” as Rush Limbaugh has put it. And it may indeed be that. But in the long run, this move could work in favor of the forces of freedom and therefore to the true benefit of the Cuban people.
As numerous totalitarian regimes have demonstrated over the years, extreme isolation from the world can be sustained for decades…look at Albania, Romania, North Korea, and Cuba. These types of regimes seldom self-destruct. Citizens are either brainwashed, co-opted, or killed. Those few who fully understand the extent of the oppression, and have the courage to act on that knowledge, do their best to get out. In none of the cases above were the citizens ever able to bring down their regime. Of those regimes that fell, they did so because of external events.
In the case of Albania and Romania, of course, the Soviet Union released its iron grip, the Berlin Wall fell, and with it, tyrants across the region were toppled. In a handful of countries, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Estonia, there was just enough freedom even under Soviet domination that ideas could spread and ignite and burst into flame. Indeed it was the insistent demand for greater freedom—economic freedom, political freedom—that led Gorbachev to loosen control. But where did they get this idea in the first place? Where did their hunger for freedom come from? It came from Radio Free Europe and samizdat, from copy machines, television and visiting foreigners.
I heard more than one person in Hungary say that among the most important factors in bringing down communism were the many Xerox machines that had been provided to pro-democracy groups. It is not insignificant that Alan Gross, the American who was released today after five years in a Cuban prison, had been arrested for trying to help Cubans gain access to the internet. With the flow of people and goods and information into Cuba that will now be possible, the marketplace of ideas will be open. Good luck to the Cuban regime if they think they can keep socialism looking bright on that shelf.
Raul Castro, the president of Cuba, said today the new reforms would help Cuba achieve its dream of a “prosperous and sustainable socialism.” In a similar vein, Mikhail Gorbachev thought that by cracking the door open to a little restructuring (perestroika) and openness (glasnost), he would breathe new life into the ailing Soviet Union. Instead what he got was a stampede that burst down the doors.
No doubt Cuban Americans will be upset with this latest move, and perhaps rightly so, but in the long run, the flow of goods and ideas and people that will now become possible will likely bring about the end of the Castro dynasty far faster than sanctions and isolation ever could.
Katharine C. Gorka is the president of the Council on Global Security. She lived and worked in Central Europe from 1990 to 2008. @katharinegorka