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The way Obama handled Castro is a new blueprint for dealing with dictators

Reuters/Kai Pfaffenbach
Barack Obama, Raul Castro and Dilma Rousseff
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The US has never been able to make up its mind on dictators. Some we like, others we don’t. Some we play nice with; others we chase down holes, terrier-style.

On the surface, it’s a duplicitousness that seems problematic — how can the United States of America, the self-proclaimed torchbearer of democracy, maintain such a wishy-washy stance on dictatorship? What business does the Land of the Free have in colluding with absolute monarchs and juntas and tyrants? After all, did we not solidify our place in the world by triumphing over authoritarianism in Europe and Asia in 1945?

President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba last week raised a lot of these questions. Some saw it as Washington cozying up to communist strongman Raúl Castro, who inherited the Cuban presidency from his older brother, Fidel, in 2006. Republicans called it appeasement, “part of a long record of coddling dictators and tyrants,” according to Florida senator Marco Rubio, himself the son of Cuban immigrants. A rather rich assessment, considering that some of the most bloodthirsty tyrants in modern history found close friends in Republican administrations. (Though, to be fair, Democrats have done their fair share of ring-kissing, too.)

In reality, the reopening of diplomatic channels between Washington and Havana reflects some of the better aspects of Obama’s foreign policy (which is by no means perfect). Namely, its nuance. The State Department of 2014 does not operate in the realm of outdated geopolitical absolutes as some of its predecessors. “Communist = bad, capitalist = good” no longer applies. And, in any case, Cold War color-coding, strategies of “containment” and “rollback,” just as often bolstered anti-democratic regimes as it undermined them.

A particularly egregious example is Guatemalan military-dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, an ally of the Reagan administration whose anti-communist politics earned him millions of dollars of military support and general aid from Washington during his brief rule (March of 1982 through August of 1983) — aid that funded a genocidal campaign against the indigenous Maya people, accused of supporting communist guerrillas. More than 200,000 died under his rule; with more than 600 Maya villages raized by military forces. They killed the men and boys, torched the fields, slaughtered the livestock, and raped the women and girls. Bodies were dumped in mass graves, some of which are being discovered to this day. (This American Life reported a comprehensive story on the genocide, for those who’d like to know more.)

President Obama understands that isolation is a boon to dictatorship; and there are ways to engage autocratic leaders without encouraging repressive tactics, or looking the other way on gross human-rights violations.

Making it rain on a strategically important dictator — i.e., the Shah of Iran — isn’t going to win you much support outside of the presidential palace. (That’s how this mess with Cuba got started in the first place.) Likewise, barring ideologically dissident countries from access to global markets provides your garden-variety autocrat with a highly useful foreign scapegoat to blame for any and all economic woes. And to quarantine entire populations from the Internet and other global media is to deprive them of viewpoints alternative to government propaganda.

It’s a fairly formulaic recipe: identify a scapegoat, reinforce the notion through state-controlled media, block any foreign counterpoints. Look at the most “successful” (impenetrable) autocracies in 2014: North Korea and Myanmar. Though the latter is tentatively flirting with globalization, their survival in a majority-democratic world over the past decades can be almost entirely attributed to self-isolation. To the average North Korean, crippling economic sanctions and separation from the South are framed as fruits of Japanese and American imperialism. State-controlled media keeps the Orwellian newspeak circulating. Keeping the population offline renders the universe small, and indisputably correspondent with Pyongyang’s agitprop.

Conversely, a globally connected people know when they’re getting a raw deal. Social media played an indispensable part in the Arab Spring uprisings, Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, and recent anti-government protests in Venezuela. When President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso attempted to extend his (already 27-year) rule, thousands of Burkinabés took to the streets in protest, resulting in his ultimate resignation. News of the ousting traversed the Sahara, sparking similar protests in the tiny East African nation of Djibouti, which has been under the rule of strongman Ismaïl Omar Guelleh since 1999.

By lifting the US embargo on Cuba, Obama is bringing Cubans into the twenty-first century. Internet, cell phones, travel to and from the States—these things will only further expose ordinary Cubans to the advantages of life under elected government. Fidel Castro knew this, which is why he made a habit of saber-rattling whenever Washington considered scaling back sanctions. And in that vein, the end of the embargo is hardly the one-sided affair some commentators would have you believe.

“With greater opening and exposure of the Cubans to American culture, music, movies, and way of life, I think there might be more demand for greater freedom, which might then encourage the government to loosen up its practices,” said Sanja Kelly, a project director for Internet freedoms at Freedom House in an interview with Time.

And therein lies the shrewdness of Obama’s plan: It’s an evolved psychology in dealing with dictators that relies more on the subtler strength of American soft power than the intimidating might of its military. It’s a recognition of the fact that isolation breeds sociopathy, and a sociopath is most dangerous when he has nothing left to lose. Dictators are fickle creatures, but not all that difficult to figure out.

📬 A periodic dispatch from the annual session of the United Nations General Assembly in NYC.

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