Restoring Diplomatic Relations with Cuba: Ethical Dilemmas

| December 2014
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President Barack Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, broken for more than five decades, has been greeted with a variety of reactions, ranging from “long overdue” to vociferous condemnation for offering to reconnect Washington and Havana without longstanding U.S. demands, particularly on greater openness and political freedom, being met. Some focus on the geopolitical and geo-economic implications of the decision (could the resumption of diplomatic ties be part of an effort to push back on the rise of Chinese economic and political influence in the Western Hemisphere, or a way to remove what had been the premier stumbling block for moving ahead on other U.S. initiatives within the Organization of American States), and while that can be a useful point of departure for assessing the ethical issues, I would like to focus attention on the various arguments about America’s “moral duty” vis-a-vis the Cuban state, the Cuban people, and America’s commitment to its own values.

The Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition, whenever examining questions of how to apply moral, ethical and religious regulations to day-to-day life, approaches any issue as a matter of navigating between two imperatives: ακρίβεια (akriveia)–defined as strictness or exactness; and οικονομία (economia), a term originally derived from household management and implying prudence and common sense, and taken to mean that a divergence from the letter of the law is permissible for a greater good. Examining the Cuba decision through this lens may produce useful insights into policymaking.

For many people, the fact that the United States must maintain not simply diplomatic relationships but even close economic and security ties with countries and regimes whose domestic political systems (and sometimes their international policies) clash with or even contradict U.S. values and preferences is a form of economia. Sometimes Washington searches for the fig leaf of defining a regime as “democratizing” or pursuing “reforms” to argue in favor of collaboration. In a few cases, even when there is no such cover–the government does not even take cosmetic steps to assuage the American conscience (by releasing political prisoners, etc.)–the existence of a greater threat may be used to excuse the relationship or to justify the cooperation (working together, for instance, to stop terrorism, or combat a natural disaster, and so on).

Has Raul Castro’s government done enough where it can credibly be described as a reformist regime? Is its cooperation vital in some vital areas of U.S. interest? Some of the critics of the President’s decision would argue that neither is operative in this case. And for every authoritarian or totalitarian regime where the United States, out of realist necessity, must maintain diplomatic relations, the argument goes, there must be at least one case where the United States can act on the basis of its values, and so deny diplomatic recognition.

The Cuba-Vietnam parallel is often invoked. Some respond by saying that Vietnam’s strategic position vis-a-vis China requires a U.S. relationship, just as Richard Nixon reached out to Mao Zedong to counterbalance the Soviet Union, even though China was just emerging from the throes of the Cultural Revolution–but that Cuba has no such strategic value requiring the United States to abandon its demands for substantial political reform in Cuba as a price for U.S. recognition. Indeed, after the U.S. normalized relations with Vietnam during the 1990s, the Congress wrote such provisions regarding Cuba into U.S. statute. As a result, they demand strict adherence to the law in this case.

The economia argument in favor of Cuba normalization is to ask what is more likely to drive substantial political and economic reform in Cuba in keeping with the spirit of U.S. law–isolation or engagement. What better serves the people of Cuba–evolution of the Castro government or its overthrow? It depends on which case you think Cuba will follow. The violent overthrow of Nicolae Ceascescu in 1989 led to some instability but by 2007 Romania was in both NATO and the EU. Iraq or Libya following the deposition of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadhafi have not fared quite so well, and in many measures may be worse off now. As a former U.S. diplomat with extensive experience in Eastern Europe observed to me, much of the support that the United States was able to render to Solidarity and other pro-democracy movements, even during the darkest days of the martial law crackdown, was precisely because there were U.S. embassies in place–and this created conditions for a more stable transfer of power in 1989. In contrast, more recent U.S. efforts at regime change around the world–focused on forcible removals of governments–have not led to better outcomes for the peoples of those countries. A Castro collapse does not necessarily pave the way for a more democratic Cuba. On the other hand, an official American presence might do more to help catalyze reform movements and deny the Castro government the excuse that problems on the island stem from U.S. efforts to isolate Cuba and create the conditions for stable, peaceful change.

Moreover, is there any guarantee that the current approach, which has not apparently worked, is the best way to bring about change? Amitai Etzioni’s 1975 comment, “No Communist regime has ever collapsed because the United States refused to recognize or trade with it,” is something that must be considered.

Vietnam again figures in these arguments. There have been reforms and changes; but the Vietnamese Communist Party still retains control. Has U.S. engagement helped a long-term evolution towards a more open political and economic system, or enabled the status quo to entrench itself and ward off pressures for further change? In the Cuba debate, proponents and opponents can both cite items that bolster their case.

Akriveia or economia for Cuba?



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