Cuba's conviction of Alan Gross for subversive activities underscores the absurdity of U.S. policy toward the island. Gross — a contractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development — amateurishly attempted last year to distribute satellite phones and personal computers in Cuba, reaching at best only a few hundred people at a cost of millions of U.S. taxpayers' dollars. Again this year, the State Department has designated another $20 million for "democracy promotion" in Cuba.
After the popular uprisings in the Middle East, no one disputes the power of social media to challenge autocrats. Where would the students in Egypt be without Facebook and Twitter, both American imports?
Yet the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba ensures that the Western Hemisphere's lone undemocratic government will not face similar demonstrations from restless young people, many of whom will soon find themselves jobless as a result of Cuba's plans to lay off up to a million state employees. Most Cubans do not have personal computers, cell phones or, in many cases, even land lines. According to Cuban government figures, only 3 percent of Cubans regularly use the Internet. They lack all the tools of modern social activism.
For autocratic governments like Cuba, control is the key to long-term survival, and we have made it all too easy for the Castro brothers to control 11 million Cubans by cutting them off from outside influences. By enforcing a trade embargo and prohibiting most Americans from visiting, we have built an information wall around the island.
That wall is likely to remain in place for at least another two years. On Feb. 28, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee announced that two Cuban-American legislators, veteran Democrat Robert Menendez from New Jersey and newly elected Republican Marco Rubio from Florida, would lead the Western Hemisphere subcommittee. With another Cuban-American, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen from Florida, chairing the House Foreign Affairs Committee, it is a near-certainty that the Castro brothers will be celebrating their 54th year firmly in power, unless they both die first, which is unlikely, and even then dictatorship-by-committee would probably follow.
However, imagine the sense of panic Fidel and Raul Castro would feel if they awoke one morning to find that the evil Yankees had lifted the trade embargo and were allowing Americans to travel freely to Cuba. During the first year after travel ban was ended, an estimated 835,000 U.S. tourists would visit Cuba, according to a study by American Society of Travel Agents. U.S. business executives are eager to invest.
I am sure the three Cuban-American legislators, like those of us who oppose the current policy, yearn for the day when Cubans are free to read anything they want, free to organize and free to choose their own leaders. But the legislators fear more than anything else that ending the embargo would be handing the Castro brothers a victory.
It would be a victory that they would soon regret. Two years after the travel restrictions were ended, Cuban shops and cafes would be jammed with Cuban and American young people exchanging e-mail addresses and ideas. And an end to the embargo would allow entrepreneurial Americans to flood the island with cheap cell phones, personal computers and Internet service. These might initially be restricted by the government, but as we have seen in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, consumerism is hard to stifle.
Ending the embargo and allowing Americans to travel to Cuba would not guarantee an end to the Castro regime in the span of two years, but the seeds of its destruction would have been sown as a million Alan Grosses fan out across the island.
Moreover, the Castro brothers would not be able to blame all the regime's shortcomings on the embargo imposed by the imperialists to the north. Young Cubans would know exactly who has kept them in poverty and in the information dark ages, and they would have acquired the tools to do something about it.
William C. Goodfellow is the executive director of the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C.