How to Help Cuba

Carlos Fernandez used to pay a monthly tax of $200 for each of the four rooms he rents to travelers. He pays only $30 per room today. “I can make $700 in a good month,” he said. That’s more than 20 times the salary of the average Cuban worker.

This is part of a slow shift toward free-market policies in communist Cuba, progress that U.S. leaders can aid — if they keep an open mind. As President Obama loosens restrictions on a half-century long embargo, our legislative branch must not react with contempt but with a conciliatory approach that can help Cubans improve their quality of life without forcing them to adopt the capitalistic model they fear will change their island nation too drastically by eliminating the free education and health care they are accustomed to having.

The point of rekindling diplomatic relations with Cuba is to focus on furthering a dialogue, not making demands. So far, so good. Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized this when he was there in August, to raise the American flag above an embassy that reopened for the first time in 50-some years. But what happens if the Republican nominee wins the White House? My guess is everything that Obama has done will be undone and the embargo will become stronger than ever unless Raul Castro bows down to GOP demands.

Despite what the polls say, I think Marco Rubio will win the nomination and if he does he has a real chance to take the general election and put Republicans in a rare position of power: control of the White House as well as both chambers of Congress, the same alignment the Democrats had when they passed the historic health care law. And by now we all know Rubio’s story: the son of Cuban immigrants who found the American dream after fleeing the island nation. I know his thoughts on the issue perhaps as well as anyone because I used to cover the Florida Legislature when Rubio was the House Speaker. He will not succumb to liberal pressure, from across the aisle or in the media.

He has ammunition as well, opinion pieces like this for starters. But even more enabling is a recent story in the New York Times that suggests the population is in severe decline because so many couples feel the communist regime’s oppression on earning power makes having children too difficult.

They are good points, but they still miss the mark. What we need to keep in mind is that the embargo has been an epic failure, the kind of swing and miss that baseball’s best pitchers can only hope to emulate. Can we sit here with a straight face and say the blockade has benefitted the Cuban people? I don’t think so. I suppose you could argue that it has forced Raul Castro’s hand; that he has had to implement free-market principles into his society because the U.S. sanctions were destroying his economy. But is bullying another country into policy changes the best approach? I say no.

What might be the most dispiriting side of the GOP opposition is that most of them have never even been to Cuba and I think if they made a trip there they might be inclined to open their minds just enough to hasten progress. When I was there in July, I definitely noticed a need for more change but more than that I saw so much potential. Not only were there thousands of rooms for rent for travelers, thanks to the lower taxes people like Fernandez pay, but I saw people in the park in Havana, on their smartphones and tablets, using free Wi-fi. The guest houses and the Internet work hand in hand as some people advertise their rooms on Airbnb.

That’s clear proof that the Cuban lifestyle is improving. We can ensure this continues. We just have to realize that it’s OK if the people there prefer a government structure more like Holland than the United States.


Ryan Hiraki is a foreign correspondent based in Latin America, the region of the world that fascinates him most. He learned to speak Spanish in Colombia and has since been to Cuba, Mexico and most of South America. In his free time he loves cooking, cycling and reading. Follow him on Twitter at @ryantravelin