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Will Warming Cuban-American Relations Spur Change?

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By Brian Brinker:

Ding, dong, the Castro is dead. Long ruling Communist-Command economy leader Fidel Castro succumbed to poor health this past Friday. With the Trump administration coming into office in the coming weeks, America will have an opportunity to revisit relations with Cuba. While President Raul Castro is still alive and apparently well, the passing of Fidel will create space for new ideas and opinions within the Cuban regime. By allowing relations with Cuba to warm, the United States can foster momentum for change, a cause that President-Elect Trump has already expressed support for.

President-Elect Trump celebrated the death of Castro on Twitter, and in a released statement promised that his administration “will do all it can to ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty.” In order to encourage change, the Trump administration should allow relations to warm so that Cubans will be exposed to Western ideas and technologies. Similar exposure has started China down the long path to modernization and increased freedom, and could prove even more dramatic in long isolated Cuba.

With Fidel having years ago handed off the reigns of day-to-day leadership to his brother Raul, immediate change in Cuba is unlikely. Owing to the long-standing feud between Cuba and the United States, putting the brakes on already warming relations may be tempting. Still, while America doesn’t need to become fast friends with the Cuban regime, the best way to push change will be through normalizing relations.

Continuing to wind down the embargoes against Cuba will allow more American goods to enter the insular Cuban market. As a result, Cubans will be increasingly exposed to Western technologies, culture, and ideas. Over time, many Cubans will come to recognize what they are missing out on, and what the Communist regime has been denying them. This should produce increasing pressure for change.

Opening Up China Has Created Positive Change

Consider China. Back in 1972 President Nixon was the first president to visit Communist China, helping to reestablish relations with a once nemesis. Under succeeding administrations, relations continued to warm and by the end of the 20th century, relations had been largely normalized.

As China has opened up to the world, the stranglehold of Mao’s brand of communism has faded and the country has begun to modernize, embracing global markets and even some democratic ideals. Now, China is a major consumer of Hollywood movies and Western culture, something that would have been unthinkable just a few decades ago.

While China remains a non-democratic country, the Communist policies of Mao have long been discarded and the “Communist Party of China” is communist in name only. China has reintegrated into the global economy, and the Chinese people have enjoyed rising incomes and standards of living. While China remains a single party state, the party itself is becoming more open to limited democratic input, and new ideas. The Party has also been cracking down on corruption and slowly becoming more transparent with the public.

Of course, progress has been slow and uneven and the situation in China is far from ideal, but there is hope that the country will continue to evolve. Protests against the Chinese government are now common, the global media has been granted more access, and critics within the government have become more forthright. Under isolationist Mao, China could ignore the world. Now, it’s easier for the United States and other countries to pressure the Chinese government into reform. This should prove especially true if President-Elect Trump is as firm with China as he claimed he would be on the campaign trail.

Raul Castro Will Be Out of The Way Soon

Fidel Castro’s death signals a changing of the guard within Cuba. While the country remains under the control of his younger brother Raul, at 85 years old he too will be passing into the history books in the not so distant future. Most other leaders from the Communist Revolution and the Cold War have also passed or retired.
Younger leaders who have seen the failure of Communism, and who can acknowledge the success of post-Communist China and Russia, will soon be taking the reigns. The next generation of Cuban leaders may not push for democracy and free market reform immediately, but they’re far more likely to be open-minded.

Similar openness to modernity can be seen in China’s new generation of leaders, such as Chinese President Xi Jinping, and is proving essential for driving change.
Further, if Cuban citizens are given the opportunity to consume more Western culture and technologies, they will likely become more vocal in demanding change and pressuring the regime. Of course, America should never forget what the Communist Party has done to the Cuban people, including those exiled, and democracy should remain a long-term goal. With a firm leader like President-Elect Trump in office, the United States may be able to walk the thin line between encouraging reform without resorting to appeasement.

Brian Brinker is an OpsLens Contributor and political consultant. Brinker has an M.A in Global Affairs from American University.

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