By Arturo López-Levy
What would Ronald Reagan’s policy towards Cuba be today? Nobody can say for sure. It is certain that he would oppose and denounce communism, but would he support the travel ban and oppose educational, cultural and academic exchanges with Havana as Marco Rubio, Mario Diaz-Balart, David Rivera and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen do? In today’s post-Cold War environment, 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, and former Secretary of State George Schultz have supported a change in Washington’s policy.
Twenty eight years ago, in March of 1983, President Reagan gave a historic speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando and called the Soviet Union, the “evil empire”. Reagan’s words about communism did not allow for nuances. It was “us against them”. Reagan’s clarity sent a meaningful message to average citizens of the democratic world and the many oppressed behind the iron curtain.
But Reagan’s speech to the Evangelicals in Florida should not be selectively cut from the whole of his general foreign policy approach to communism. Unfortunately, in the issue of foreign policy towards Cuba, supporters of the embargo use Reagan’s phrases to promote a “magical realism” version of what a moral policy towards communism should be.
Not so fast. Reagan’s moral approach to foreign policy was multifaceted. His rejection of communism was never linked to the concept of total isolation. 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. In a conciliatory note, Reagan made an excusable historic error by claiming that “Our two countries have never fought against each other”.
Reagan Administration’s policy towards Cuba was complex and different from the ideological opposition to engagement so typical of the pro-embargo lobby. He was always a relentless opponent of Castro’s government. But moral clarity never led him to exclude rational ways of advancing American interests through engagement. In 1984, Cuba and the United States signed a migratory agreement while Cuban military forces were still in Angola and Ethiopia. In December 1988, the Reagan Administration brokered a non- zero solution to the conflicts in the Southern cone of Africa;a peace agreement between Cuba, Angola and South Africa was signed in New York. Fidel Castro’s central concerns, i.e., the independence of Namibia and Angola, were guaranteed. The United States reclaimed a central role as a balancer in the region, contributing to the end of the Angolan civil war and guaranteeing a new energy partnership with Luanda. South Africa was able to begin a peaceful process of reforms that ended apartheid.
Reagan’s approach to change communism through engagement was particularly evident in his attitude towards Deng’s reforms in China. It was during the first Reagan Administration that the United States redefined the PRC as a “friendly non-aligned country”. China’s decision to decollectivize agriculture was clearly viewed by Reagan as a major step in the right direction. Although Reagan was quite consciously aware that Deng was interested in “perfecting communism through Capitalism”, he understood the opportunity that marketization and opening would create for the expansion of freedom.
In April 1984, President Reagan visited Beijing where he was particularly impressed by Deng Xiaoping’s vision for a post-Maoist China. By that time, the trend toward a mixed 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, more than ten thousand Chinese came to study in America. Reagan’s visit to Beijing in 1984 ended with several bilateral agreements, including one about nuclear cooperation.
Given how dramatically the world and Cuba have changed, the “Great Communicator” policies of the 1980’s don’t tell us much about how he would approach Cuba today. 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 engaging and supporting non-liberal reformers, it is not farfetched to imagine a resurrected 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. Not only in China but also in Eastern Europe, the second Reagan Administration followed such a course.
The United States’ policies must be moral, but not dogmatic. Moral vision calls for Americans to lead by example and not by undermining the values we preach. America was founded on the principle of a government of the majority with respect for minority rights. There are private areas of citizens’ lives in which the government should not intervene, e.g., travel, unless there is a public emergency.
Unfortunately, US policy towards Cuba has routinely fallen short of those values. Since the end of the Cold War, there has been no national interest reason to continuepandering to a minority within the Cuban American community by restricting the right of Americans to travel and do business in Cuba. It is true that such policies limit the cash flow to the Cuban government’s coffers. But this is just one side of the coin. The Cuban private sector is currently undergoing a substantial expansion that will include 1.8 million workers by the beginning of the next year. The travel ban hinders these workers’s from realizing their potential for independence from the Cuban government.
The reforms in China have demonstrated how some degree of market growth can coexist with totalitarianism; but time has shown in Taiwan, Korea, Spain and many other countries that this will not last. To be efficient, market economies need to release individuals’ initiative and guarantee rule of law. It is difficult to keep this economic freedom separated from politics. Democracy is never inevitable but market oriented economic growth provides the most favorable environment for it. As Reagan did with China in the 1980’s, the United States should support the process of marketization of the Cuban economy by allowing American and Cuban-American investment and trade with Cuba’s emerging private and cooperative sector.
The United Nations, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International have identified the embargo — the cornerstone of Washington’s policy towards Cuba — as a violation of human rights. A moral vision about non-democratic regimes does not require isolating ourselves from their societies. On the contrary: naming and shaming human rights violators combined with open engagement will yield results that are compatible with democratic values. Honoring rights in the West helped democratic efforts to shape the discussion within communist countries. The US never built a wall to impede its citizens to travel or trade with Egypt or Tunisia, or Poland and Hungary during the Cold War.
The end of the Cold War confirmed that America’s most effective tool in favor of reform in non-democratic countries was not its military or its power to isolate but the freedom of the American people and the appeal of their way of life. These factors contributed to communists’ losing faith in their system. For decades, Americans toured atheistic Red Square showing their belief in God-given liberty. By doing business in China or going to Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, Americans demonstrated how their government did not restrain them from profiting from their talent or from traveling wherever they wanted.
It is time to return America’s approach to Cuba to a foreign policy based on what Ronald Reagan would have described as “fundamental principles”; the values that differentiate who we are as a democratic country from the totalitarian behaviors we would like to change in Cuba. Democratic efforts to hold Cuba to a certain human rights standards are weakened every time a travel restriction is imposed on American citizens. Democracies are more effective when they remain loyal to their principles.
 In 1918, American troops intervened in Russia against the new Bolshevik regime of Vladimir I. Lenin.
 New York Times, 16 December 1984.
About the author:
Arturo López-Levy is a lecturer at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver
Institute for the Study of Israel in the Middle East.
In Cuba, he worked as Secretary of the Bnai Brith Lodge of the Cuban Jewish Community (1999-2001) and a political analyst for the Cuban government (1993-1994).
Orginally published in The Havana Note Jun 28, 2011