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How to Tell Whether Obama Did the Right Thing on Cuba

How to Tell Whether Obama Did the Right Thing on Cuba
If the restoration of diplomatic ties leads to greater openness, then
the ’s bold move will be justified.

A narrow selection of books on the Plaza de Armas (William Z. Goldberg)
On my most recent visit to Cuba this past March, I brought my family
with me, because I wanted my children to see what Cuba looked like
before everything changed. I didn’t realize quite how quickly that
change would come.

In Havana, we stayed on the Plaza de Armas, a square that is in the
heart of the old city, a carefully restored neighborhood in a capital
that is otherwise collapsing on itself. Each morning, booksellers would
set up stands in the square, and each morning, my 13-year-old son would
roam about, talking to the booksellers and taking pictures of their
shelves. One morning, he rushed back to the to report on a
fascinating conversation. One of the booksellers had asked him, “What do
you think of Communism?”

We had briefed the children on the nature of totalitarian societies, and
on the need to be discreet in public commentating—especially since I was
in Cuba as a , and especially since the government had shown
interest in my movements. “What did you say?” I asked. He answered: “I
said, ‘I think it’s interesting,’ and then he said, ‘Well, I think it’s

It is easy to understand why a bookseller on the Plaza de Armas would
think this way: Censorship laws, and custom, and the secret ,
guarantee that the only books sold on the square are mildewed Chomskys
and Che hagiographies.

There will be many ways to test whether the Obama administration, and
those who support its decision to reestablish ties with Cuba after a
half-century hiatus (including yours truly), are correct in arguing that
broad exposure to America, to its people and to its businesses, will
translate into greater openness and for ordinary Cubans. One of
the most important ways to measure this will be to watch levels of
connectivity—open, affordable, unfiltered connectivity. Many
Cubans I’ve met have quite literally never been on the Internet. In two
years, if rates of exposure to the Internet remain the same, then the
great Obama experiment could be judged, provisionally, a failure.

Critics of Obama’s overture to Cuba argue that close U.S. ties with
and are proof that exposure to America does not translate
into political freedom—it translates into greater access to Coca-Cola
products, but not to the spread of American ideals of free speech and
pluralism. These critics have a point, of course (though critics of
these critics also have a point: If the U.S. can have normal diplomatic
and commercial ties with China, a terrible violator of , why
should it not have normal diplomatic and commercial ties with Cuba, a
country ruled by a government that is less malignant than China’s?).

Cuba, of course, is not China, and it is not Vietnam: China is large
enough to create its own weather, and Vietnam is 8,000 miles away. The
U.S. will have influence in Havana—a 45-minute flight from Miami—in
profound and useful ways (and also potentially negative ways: I know, as
a patriotic American, that I’m supposed to argue for the uncomplicated
benefits of unfettered capitalism, but I would say that the Plaza de
Armas will not necessarily be improved by the presence of a Burger King).

Here is my modest Plaza de Armas test: If, in two years, the booksellers
on the plaza are selling books about something other than Che, and if
they’re making actual money selling more of what they want to sell, then
the argument that engagement leads to openness will look credible. I’m
not expecting anything close to perfect freedom—I’d be surprised, in two
years, to find Marco Rubio’s memoir for sale on the plaza—but I’ll go
looking for some proof that change is actually happening. Internet
connectivity, the release of political prisoners, the establishment of
non-government newspapers—these are bigger tests. But the plaza test
will be telling nonetheless.

Source: How to Tell Whether Obama Did the Right Thing on Cuba – The
Atlantic –

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