On a drive across Cuba a few weeks ago, my family and I decided to make a quick detour to the Bay of Pigs. It was hot, and the beach at Playa Giron -- where 53 years ago a tragicomic CIA-sponsored invasion force stormed ashore -- seemed like a good place for lunch. Plus, who could pass up the opportunity to swim in the Bay of Pigs? I would swim in the Gulf of Tonkin for the same reason.
There’s not much happening these days at Playa Giron. Facing the beach was a rundown hotel with concrete cabanas and faded Russian signs. Opposite the hotel stood a sweaty, ragged museum featuring wearisome denunciations of “counterrevolutionary Yankee bandits” (a great name for a band, we decided). Near the beach was a small shop selling the same nine items that all Cuban tourist stores sell: Che Guevara T-shirts, Che Guevara postcards, dry Brazilian crackers, that sort of thing. But this store, somewhat unusually, carried two American products as well: Pringles and cold Coca-Cola. One of my children quickly made for the Pringles. “Look,” she said. “We won.”
On the one hand, we Americans might be counterrevolutionary Yankee bandits who couldn’t even secure a beach at the Bay of Pigs. But on the other, we sure know how to make stackable snack chips that are irresistible even in a Communist command economy. The exact mechanism by which Pringles and Coke penetrated the closed Cuban economy and bypassed the American economic embargo, I do not know. But they did. And therein lies a small lesson.
Many Americans are by now familiar with the strange case of the U.S. development subcontractor Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned for more than four years, and with the even stranger case of the semi-clandestine “Cuban Twitter” established (and later shut down) by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The U.S. government has, for more than five decades, worked for regime change in Cuba. The embargo is designed to destabilize the regime, as are many of the clandestine programs. (The Bay of Pigs invasion was perhaps the crudest, most obvious, attempt by the U.S. to rid Cuba of Communism -- also, probably the least successful.)
There is no evidence that the Castro brothers -- the father of the revolution, Fidel, and his younger brother, Raul, who currently rules the country, will ever die. Even if they do die, there’s nothing in the record to suggest that the U.S. government will have success removing the leaders who follow. U.S. policy toward Cuba has been a comprehensive failure.
Gross is a victim of that failed policy. Gross was dispatched to Cuba in 2009 by a USAID contractor to provide communications equipment to Cuba’s tiny Jewish community (which, as I have previously noted, already had some access to the Internet). The so-called Cuban Twitter network, which was publicly launched after Gross was arrested and imprisoned by Cuban authorities, had a similar goal: Connecting Cubans to the outside world, and -- from the Cuban government’s viewpoint -- encouraging those same Cubans to rise up, Arab Spring-style, against the Castro regime.
The Cuban Twitter network is controversial on Capitol Hill. Democratic Senator Pat Leahy of Vermont, who argues for ending the embargo of Cuba, called the social-networking effort “dumb, dumb, dumb.” On the other side, Democratic Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a hardline anti-Castro activist, defended the idea, saying, “The whole purpose of our democracy programs, whether it be in Cuba or other parts of the world, is in part to create a free flow of information in closed societies.”
In this case, both senators are right. Menendez is correct to argue that a goal of American foreign policy should be to open closed societies. The Associated Press, which broke the social network story, portrayed this program’s intent as scandalous, as if Cubans somehow don’t deserve open access to the Internet. Cuba’s people are largely disconnected from the world. As the writer Michael Totten has noted, in Cuba a person can quickly feel “umbilically severed from the rest of the planet.”
But Leahy is right to argue that allowing a U.S. aid agency to establish a semi-clandestine network -- one guaranteed both to be ineffective (at its height, it had only about 40,000 users, according to the Associated Press) and to taint USAID’s reputation in the world of humanitarian assistance -- is fairly dumb. The U.S. wouldn’t assign the CIA to care for flood victims; why, then is USAID playing Cold War games?
In one important respect, the Cuban Twitter scheme was worse than dumb -- it was dangerous. The network was made fully operational after Cuban authorities arrested Gross. You might think Gross’s difficult situation would have caused officials at USAID to consider whether a new program designed to undermine the regime could have placed Gross in even greater danger. But no one at USAID apparently thought of this, typical for an agency that dispatched a subcontractor to Cuba who was thoroughly unqualified for clandestine work in the first place.
On a policy level, all of USAID’s subterranean work to open Cuba to the Internet, and therefore to American ideas, may be unnecessary. Senator Menendez, who wants Cubans to be free, surely knows there is a more efficient way to expose Cubans to American ideas: end the embargo.
Over time, I suspect the regime would find it difficult to resist the influx of American tourists, products, technology and media. I understand that residents of Beijing can buy Pringles but still lack freedom, but Cuba is not China. It is a small country that is organically tied to the very large country to its north. Opening Cuba to Americans (travel is curtailed by U.S. law -- I’ll explain how we managed to get there another time), could bring about an eventual loosening in the government’s control of information. In any case, reason enough to lift the embargo lies in its almost 55-year failure.
Senator Jeff Flake, the Arizona Republican who takes a heterodoxical position on the embargo, argues that current American policy only helps Cuba’s Communist rulers. “We could allow for the free movement of Americans to Cuba, who would bring with them books and newspapers and ideas and commerce,” Flake told me last week. “And if you really want to create headaches for them,” he continued, only half-jokingly, “let them deal with spring break.”
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