Both Americans and Cubans would benefit from a better relationship between their two countries – but Congress will probably prevent this, to judge by Republican reactions to Tuesday’s handshake between Presidents Obama and Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service. Yet again, politicians are not working in the interests of ordinary Americans.
John McCain criticised the handshake, making the wholly inappropriate remark that “Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler”. He was attention-seeking and posturing. Cuba does not represent a security threat to either America or its neighbours, and it is against America’s interests to needlessly antagonise Raul Castro by comparing him to Hitler.
From an economic perspective, both countries would benefit from an end to American sanctions. They are hurting the lives of ordinary Cubans, and estimates of the sanctions’ annual cost to the US economy “range from $1.2 to $3.6 billion”. Neighbouring countries should be prime export markets for each other.
Politicians impose sanctions to make themselves look right-minded and decisive. In practice these sanctions strengthen Raul Castro’s grip on power by enabling him to blame America for the state of Cuba’s economy and giving him the political legitimacy of a leader who is struggling against an external enemy (6.3.6).
If American politicians were really trying to serve the interests of ordinary Americans they would stop posturing and start to negotiate with Cuba:
- America’s security would be better served by using ‘soft power‘ within the context of normal diplomatic relations.
- Americans are indignant about the imprisonment of the American aid-worker Alan Gross, who was arrested in 2009. The most likely way of freeing him is through diplomatic negotiation.
- Cuba has rightly been criticised for its human rights record, but the best way of applying pressure would be through negotiation – perhaps offering the loosening of sanctions as an inducement.
Instead of criticising President Obama for shaking hands with Raul Castro, Americans should be applauding any sign of a long-overdue improvement in relations between the two countries.