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'It's too early to tell' --- Will the new Cuba policy work?

Paul Greenberg

By Paul Greenberg

Published Dec. 22, 2014

     'It's too early to tell' --- Will the new Cuba policy work?

Welcome to Washington and Bienvenida a la Habana! The door has creaked open to renewed diplomatic and maybe commercial relations between the Colossus of the North and one of the few remaining Communist tyrannies this side of Beijing -- and hope and peril now enter it side by side. You can almost see Old Havana and hear the sweet habaneras again, though played to the accompaniment of groans from the Brothers Castro's political prisoners still yearning to breathe free.

Both the hopefulness and the fear are fully warranted, as they always are when free men grasp the tyrant's hand. But the tyrant has reason to beware, too, for freedom has a way of proving contagious. A taste of it, let alone contact with it, and the whole fragile web of tyranny may first tremble, then implode. See what happened when Comrade Gorbachev thought he could apply just a little cosmetic Glasnost and Perestroika, openness and reconstruction, to the Soviet system. Result: Goodbye, Soviet Union and General Secretary Gorbachev with it. Communism with a human face, that contradiction in terms, turned out to be -- poof! -- no Communism at all.

Let's see if the Castros haven't made the same miscalculation by inviting Uncle Sam to exchange ambassadors. Then again, Stalin got even more Stalinist after the Soviets won American recognition in 1933.

How will this latest gamble -- on the part of both freedom and tyranny -- turn out? "It's too early to tell." That was the response from the never-scrutable Zhou Enlai on the occasion of another renewal of American recognition for another totalitarian state. On a hush-hush visit to Beijing in the 1970s, the American secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, always interested in the devious twists and turns of ideology as well as diplomacy, had a question for the redoubtable Chou, foreign minister and survivor par excellence of Mao's police state: What was the party's position these days on the French Revolution? Was it still the orthodox Marxist view that the French Revolution was but the precursor of the Russian Revolution on the road to the dictatorship of the proletariat, or was the French Revolution now seen as just a dead end, a detour that had led only to a succession of bourgeois republics?

Comrade Chou paused. And paused. And then gave his (non) judgment on the events in Paris circa 1789: "It's too early to tell."

So it is with this week's reopening of diplomacy with Havana. Will it lead to a new birth of freedom on that prison isle, or just provide cover for the Brothers Castro's continuing dictatorship? Both those who welcome this diplomatic gamble or denounce it as just another sellout to another Latin caudillo may exaggerate its importance. Before reaching any hasty conclusions, let's see how it plays out step by step.

Let's see if Cubans will now be free to come and go as they please, for many will be welcome in this country, where Cuban exiles -- and their children and grandchildren -- have already proven a welcome addition to the American melting pot and an asset to this free, not to say rambunctious, society in general. (Case in point: Marco Rubio, current U.S. senator and powerful advocate for freedom.)

Will we see Elián González on these shores again? He was but a boy when he was snatched up in the middle of the night and forcibly returned to Cuba courtesy of Janet Reno's (in)Justice Department, for the Branch Davidian disaster wasn't the only contribution of that attorney general to the annals of injustice. How thoroughly has Elián been brainwashed by now, and has his Thought Reform succeeded so well he wouldn't even recognize his old bedroom in Miami, which still awaits him unchanged? The ominous knock on the door that begins midnight raids, it turns out, isn't a hallmark of only tyranny but of a democracy when it loses its way. Yes, let's see. And live in hope. We're still waiting for you, Elián.

Let's see if Cubans still at home will now be free to speak and write as they please and, more important, remain free after they've exercised those unalienable rights. Or will they be clamped into prison like so many other free spirits that dared stand up to the Castros' bloody regime? Let's see if the prison gates will now be opened, and those freedom fighters who sacrificed so much for so many years will now be released into the light of day and freedom.

And let's see if the embargo on trade with Cuba will be lifted along with the Communists' own embargo on free thought. Trade with the West can be liberating -- or not. It can open a wedge for freedom to flourish. Or not.

Trade with Communist China, as immense as this country's now is, has not changed the political character of that regime, which remains as ruthless as ever. Lenin's NEP (New Economic Program) after he seemed to give up on Marxist economics proved only a transient front for an ever more brutal Communist regime under his, and then Stalin's, iron hand.

In short, let's see if easing the embargo on trade with Cuba works any better to further the cause of a Free Cuba than its imposition has worked for half a century now. Or will dropping it have only worse results? Yes, let's see.

For now, "it's too early to tell" how this opening to Cuba will play out, but there is one sure guide: Cuba Libre! Will this pivotal change in American policy further the cause of Cuban freedom? If it doesn't, diplomatic relations can be broken again as easily as they're now being restored. As an ever-hopeful but ever-cautious president of the United States named Ronald Reagan once put it: "Trust but verify."

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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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