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The Nonsensical Case Against Normalization

Rubio appeared on ABC’s This Week yesterday and said this [1] about normalization with Cuba:

We have those policies of normalization toward Vietnam, for example, toward China. They’re not any more politically free today than they were when that normalization happened. They may have a bigger economy, but their political freedoms, certainly I would not hold up China or Saudi Arabia or Vietnam as examples of political freedom, proving my point, that engagement by itself does not guarantee or even lead to political freedoms.

It’s true that diplomatic engagement does not necessarily guarantee or lead to political freedoms in the other country, but we know very well that refusing to engage with authoritarian regimes ensures that there is even less of a chance that political liberalization will occur. While China and Vietnam are not noticeably freer politically now than they were before the U.S. established normal relations with their governments, no one in the U.S. today would seriously argue that normalizing relations with either of them was a mistake or that the policy should be changed back to what it used to be. The central flaw in Rubio’s argument is his assumption that the U.S. must not resume relations with another country until its political system has started liberalizing. That holds normalization with Cuba to a standard that the U.S. has never applied anywhere else, and treats Cuba as if it were unique in having a repressive government when everyone can see that this is not the case at all.

Even if nothing changes in the Cuban political system for the better for the next twenty years, both Cubans and Americans would still be better off from resuming diplomatic ties and substantially increasing trade. No one can credibly argue that the same would be true if the U.S. continued the old policy for that period of time. It may take a long time for renewed relations and increased trade to have any meaningful effect on Cuba’s politics, but that is all the more reason to start the process now. In order for Rubio’s argument to make the least bit of sense, one has to believe that continuing a policy of deprivation and punitive measures can have liberalizing effects after decades of not having had any. That is an obviously absurd thing to believe. Rubio wants to keep cutting off one of our closest neighbors from engaging in commerce and diplomacy with America, and he wants to be applauded for his dedication to freedom. He can have one or the other, but he doesn’t get to have both.

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26 Comments To "The Nonsensical Case Against Normalization"

#1 Comment By LaurelhurstLiberal On December 22, 2014 @ 12:57 am

His argument doesn’t work on any level. The US normalized relations with China in 1978. Can anyone seriously argue that China isn’t wealthier and more open than it was in 1978? Then, most Chinese were trapped on giant agricultural collectives; now they stream into cities to get jobs. Wealthy Chinese exist outside of government, and they run businesses, read blogs, travel abroad, and join churches in increasing numbers.

This is a long way from true freedom, but a huge improvement from the 70’s in many ways.

#2 Comment By Ken_L On December 22, 2014 @ 3:38 am

So Rubio must be in favour of breaking off diplomatic relations with China, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia. Plus a bunch of other countries that have failed to meet his expectations despite America deigning to talk to them for years.

At least he will always be able to say he was once mentioned for the presidency.

#3 Comment By Neal On December 22, 2014 @ 5:59 am

I am no fan of trade with thug regimes. I don’t see the point. I will never go to visit vietnam, china, or cuba, but it is impossible to participate in this globalized world without buying some product made in vietnam or china. Others have decided for me that it is a good idea to trade with them. I sincerely doubt any of them care about freedom in those places as it is first and foremost about making money.

I do think the idea of trade bringing openness and freedom to oppressive countries has been pretty thoroughly discredited by now. It will take more than a shiny new hotel or manufacturing plant to get political freedom to break out in these other countries.

#4 Comment By Uncle Billy On December 22, 2014 @ 6:04 am

The Cuban Embargo has not been successful in toppling the Castro regime. It has only caused additional suffering to the Cuban people. A rational person would have ended this embargo years ago, but then we are not rational. If the US would have normalized relations with Cuba and allow Americans, especially Cuban-Americans to travel there, it would have much more of an effect of liberalizing the Cuban Government. We are not going to make Cuba into a “democracy” but we can have some influence via normalized relations.

#5 Comment By Ken T On December 22, 2014 @ 9:16 am

“I do think the idea of trade bringing openness and freedom to oppressive countries has been pretty thoroughly discredited by now.”

But so has the idea of embargoes and sanctions “bringing openness and freedom” to those countries. In fact, to anyone with at least one toe dipped in the waters of reality, the idea that anything WE do will ever “bring openness and freedom” to anyone else has been thoroughly, totally discredited.

THAT is the point.

#6 Comment By Sean S. On December 22, 2014 @ 9:40 am

I think the comparison to China/Vietnam are not apt, for a variety of reasons. Cuba’s economic reforms, while allowing private investment and the establishment of private business, are definitively weighted in favor of small scale producers, as the state reserves for itself the large FDI investments. For example, where as small store fronts that were previously owned outright by the government, the government has created a leasing system where stalls/booth etc. are leased at a flat rate with owners earning whatever profits they make over their costs. This is in distinct contrast to many other states ( I can think of Tunisia) where the small store owner and street vendor is increasingly harassed and not brought into the formal economy. Many of these things were happening on a defacto basis, but the liberalization basically brings these sectors into the fold, and from the governments point of view, a n actual revenue source instead of being on the black market. Also important to note that most of the financing for private businesses are effectively state loans and credit, again ensuring the state, while no longer directly in control, certainly gets a cut. Effectively it gets all the benefit, with little need to engage in the planning apparatus.

#7 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On December 22, 2014 @ 9:51 am

The old, fundamental error Americans tend to make is to preach diplomatic recognition is some sort of seal of approval. It should be simply a recognition that it’s useful to talk to a government, and it is committed to the rules of diplomatic engagement. Moral approval should have nothing to do with it.

#8 Comment By Andrew Zook On December 22, 2014 @ 10:17 am

Rubio’s idea that normalization hasn’t done anything in China/Vietnam etc is bunk. Maybe the subtle changes don’t make headlines but I can hardly believe any of those countries – including Saudia Arabia are exactly like they were at the time of or before normalization.
But I think this speaks to a bigger overarching problem, especially with the modern conservatism of people like Rubio. In their minds, “political freedom” is only achieved when it looks, acts, sounds exactly like ours (USA). They intentionally or not seem to dismiss any and all cultural or logistical contexts with a hardline, binary zealotry that usually ends up making it harder for political freedom to really develop at all ((illustrated so well in Iraq…) For God’s sake let an incremental, nuanced, culturally specific political freedom develop over time and be encouraged by any means possible. I have a lot of hope that this will happen in Cuba now. Dear conservative hawks; for the sake of mankind the world over; for once let go of your “all or nothing” mindset… it’s so childish and callous.

#9 Comment By Slugger On December 22, 2014 @ 10:45 am

Does the anti-Castro community have an ideal that they would like to see Cuba achieve? I am sure that no one wants to see re-establishment of the pre-Castro form of caudillo/Mafia governance. Mr. Rubio should give us an outline of what he’d like to see and a roadmap for getting there. In the meantime, what has the embargo achieved? I am pretty sure that neither Castro brother has missed any meals.

#10 Comment By collin On December 22, 2014 @ 12:52 pm

I am with LaurelhurstLiberalon this one. China & Vietnam have made some strides in term of freedom and I believe their openness to the global economy is the primary reason. (Even the Chinese papers can critize obvious air quality problems.) So while a more open relation with Cuba won’t create a free society, it can lay the groundwork for future changes especially with a new regime at some point in the future.

#11 Comment By Stephen On December 22, 2014 @ 3:18 pm

After the torture report, perhaps we should get our own house in order before decrying relations with “thug” regimes.

#12 Comment By BD On December 22, 2014 @ 3:51 pm

“I do think the idea of trade bringing openness and freedom to oppressive countries has been pretty thoroughly discredited by now. It will take more than a shiny new hotel or manufacturing plant to get political freedom to break out in these other countries.”

I’ve got to disagree with that–it’s not a magical formula that opening trade makes repressive regimes turn to freedom, but trade and contacts with free societies–particularly rich, market-based societies–tends to undermine the control that totalitarian regimes have over their people. It’s why North Korea (perhaps smartly) has so completely isolated their people from outside influence, and likely will never see its people rise up against the regime.

Trade and contacts with China forced them to liberalize economically (and to a lesser extent, politically–it’s still a fascist country but nothing quite what it was like during the worst days of Maoism) because otherwise their trade with us would have been excessively one-sided (massive trade deficits in our favor, them trading away resources for our manufactures). Similarly, trade and contacts with the Soviet bloc created a younger generation that rejected the communist ways and caused the push for reform which eventually made the system collapse.

It’s no slam dunk, of course–a dictator could manage his economy and population in a way that enables some trade without having to liberalize domestically–but there is far better potential for doing so compared to the isolation strategy. Any smart dictator has it in their best interest to keep their country isolated from wealthier, freer countries as much as possible.

#13 Comment By Michael N Moore On December 23, 2014 @ 6:38 am

The political movement on Cuba is a tribute to the power of agribusiness. President Obama comes from the financial heart of agribusiness, Chicago.

Food and medical exports to Cuba were allowed under law, but only in exchange for hard currency. In recent years the US was losing market share to Brazil and other countries who gave more favorable terms.

[2]

#14 Comment By Peregrinator On December 23, 2014 @ 11:21 am

I’m not sure how high political freedom should rank in terms of importance anyway. Isn’t actual freedom more important?

#15 Comment By Jay C On December 23, 2014 @ 12:41 pm

@ Slugger

Does the anti-Castro community have an ideal that they would like to see Cuba achieve? I am sure that no one wants to see re-establishment of the pre-Castro form of caudillo/Mafia governance.

I wouldn’t be too sure of that: demographic shifts notwithstanding, I’m sure a non-trivial segment of the “exile community” (Marco Rubio voters the lot of them) would probably want to revert – immediately – to the ancien regime as a template for governing Cuba. It’s not considered polite – or politically correct – to bring up the flaws or shortcomings of systems that are officially Victims Of Communism; but the fact remains that pre-Revolutionary (even pre-Batista) Cuba was scarcely a model of enlightened liberal governance, still less the repository of Freedom and Democracy revisionists like Sen. Rubio would make it out to. “Traditional” Latin-American governance isn’t/wasn’t quite what we would like to have imagined.

#16 Comment By James Canning On December 23, 2014 @ 1:24 pm

I think the foolish US embargo against Cuba has helped to delay political and economic reform in Cuba.

#17 Comment By Myron Hudson On December 23, 2014 @ 7:30 pm

Trade may not bring openness and freedom anywhere, but so what? Trade is trade. Commerce. From the capitalist point of view, which I subscribe to, that’s good. And I believe that capitalism exports itself far more effectively than any other “ism”.

It is weird to see GOPers and “conservatives” trying to limit trade for emotional and ideological reasons, although I’m starting to get used to it. I’m just saying.

#18 Comment By Michael On December 23, 2014 @ 9:40 pm

We’ll see what happens. So far, we are making all the changes. As for trade, we won’t see much benefit; Cuba just doesn’t sell much worth buying. (Doesn’t even have the best cigars anymore.)

It will be interesting to see the debate in Congress on lifting the embargo (no conditions?) and who will be next ambassador. It might have to be a recess appointment!

We have engaged with Cuba and have been involved in secret diplomacy, off and on, for years. It has always come undone, usually because the Cubans do something stupid or nasty.

#19 Comment By Moveable Feast On December 24, 2014 @ 3:48 pm

“both Cubans and Americans would still be better off from resuming diplomatic ties and substantially increasing trade”

Well, OK. But no immigration from Cuba please. And no “guest workers”. We need more immigrants and foreign workers like a hole in the head.

#20 Comment By tbraton On December 24, 2014 @ 9:10 pm

” but I can hardly believe any of those countries – including Saudia Arabia are exactly like they were at the time of or before normalization.”

Uh, I believe Saudia Arabia did not become a unified kingdom until 1932, and the U.S. established full diplomatic relations the next year, 1933, after recognizing the Saud government in 1931. (“The United States is one of Saudi Arabia’s largest trading partners and closest allies and have had full diplomatic relations since 1933 and they remain strong today.”) If Saudi Arabia has changed in the interim, I believe much of the credit should go to an item we call “oil,” not diplomatic relations with the U.S. The U.S. did not establish diplomatic relations with Haiti for more than 60 years after Haiti achieved its independence from France in 1804, but I don’t think anyone attributes Haiti’s backwardness to the delay in U.S. recognition.

Establishing diplomatic relations with Communist China in 1971 did not transform China as much as our opening up of our economy to Chinese goods did. I always like to point out that we maintained a trade embargo on the Soviet Union and it dissolved in 1991 while we opened up our economy to Chinese goods and China is still Communist.

#21 Comment By tbraton On December 26, 2014 @ 5:00 pm

“I think the foolish US embargo against Cuba has helped to delay political and economic reform in Cuba.”

James Canning, I take a somewhat contrarian view. Had we not allowed the cream of Cuba’s intelligensia (in the broadest sense of the word) to emigrate to the U.S., I am sure the Castros would have been assassinated within a couple of years of their attaining power. Those Cubans we allowed into the U.S. were among the most intelligent of the Cubans and very bright people. Had they been forced to remain in Cuba, those clever people would have surely found some way to kill the Castros. We provided Castro with a release valve, as we found with the subsequent Mariel boatlift. While the Cubans who came to the U.S. surely benefited from their political asylum, I don’t think Cuba benefited from their exile. Just my personal view.

BTW we opened up to China more than 40 years ago (roughly 10 years after the Castros seized power), and the extensive trade hasn’t done a whole lot to achieve political reform in China.

#22 Comment By tbraton On December 26, 2014 @ 7:07 pm

This topic reminds me of an amusing incident that occurred around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union two years later. Everybody was speculating about the political consequences of the impending collapse of the Soviet Union. One of my acquaintances was an attractive woman in her 30’s, not an intellectual heavyweight but pretty intelligent. She raised the possibility of the Castro regime would follow the course of the Berlin Wall. With my vastly superior intellect and knowledge, I assured her that her hopes were not likely to be satisfied since the Castros appeared to be fairly well entrenched in Cuba, and I saw nothing that was likely to shake their hold on power. On the other hand, I assured her, the future of NATO became highly untenable since the whole purpose of NATO no longer seemed to exist. Although I did not make a prediction to her about NATO, I thought to myself that NATO would surely follow the USSR out the door within the next 10 years. Now let’s compare scorecards. My friend was clearly wrong about the impending doom of the Castros, but Cuba has not expanded its political reach. NATO, on the other hand, not only did not go away but actually expanded up to the border of Russia. In my heart, I still far superior to my friend in intellect, but humility instructs me that my ability to predict the future is not much better than hers.

I take solace in knowing that Robert Gates, a high muckety-muck at the CIA in the 1980’s whose specialty was the Soviet Union, declared around 1983 that the USSR was not likely to disappear during his children’s lifetime. [3] Now that is a great call. It sure puts my humility in context.

#23 Comment By Stephen R Gould On December 27, 2014 @ 11:54 am

It seems to me that Rubio et al are also missing a very obvious point of geopolitical strategy. If we don’t engage with Cuba, they’ll find someone else to engage with. Do we want a resurgent China to have a client state 90 miles from our shores?

#24 Comment By tbraton On December 28, 2014 @ 2:33 am

“Do we want a resurgent China to have a client state 90 miles from our shores?”

Stephen Gould, the George Friedman piece in Stratfor that I mentioned earlier makes the good point that it is the domination of Cuba by a powerful foreign country that implicates U.S. vital interests, not Cuba itself, which poses no threat. I believe the Chinese are smart enough to figure this out and will stay out of Cuba or the Cubans are smart enough to figure it out and keep the Chinese away lest they tempt the U.S. to invade and overthrow the Castro regime.

The other factor which I thought might have played a role was the discovery a number of years ago of large oil deposits off the north shore of Cuba south of the Florida keys. But some quick research into the subject revealed that most exploration by foreign oil companies have thus far proven unsuccessful in locating commercially viable deposits. And with the recent plunge in oil prices, I think that factor has further receded from consideration.

#25 Comment By tbraton On December 28, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

“it is the domination of Cuba by a powerful foreign country that implicates U.S. vital interests, not Cuba itself, which poses no threat. I believe the Chinese are smart enough to figure this out and will stay out of Cuba or the Cubans are smart enough to figure it out and keep the Chinese away lest they tempt the U.S. to invade and overthrow the Castro regime.”

After posting that, it occurred to me that the only country around the world that can’t figure out this relatively simple rule of foreign relations is the United States of America, as it continues to seek to expand NATO into geographically sensitive areas next to Russia and intrudes into Ukraine, causing political disruption in that sensitive area (at least sensitive to Russia, in the same way Cuba is sensitive to the U.S.).

#26 Comment By James On December 29, 2014 @ 3:01 am

So tell me Mr. Rubio about the following regimes that your government did not only negotiate with, but heavily supported and made possible:
Chile
Shah’s Iran
Israel
Indonesia
Etc..
Etc.

Hypocrisy is synonymous the American political establishment.