Having twice visited Castro's Cuba -- once during the 1970s, when Cuban troops were fighting in Angola and Mozambique, and again a dozen years ago, long after the Soviet subsidies had disappeared -- I can attest that the place is a horror.
It's a tropical police state with near-absolute income equality: Just about everybody is impoverished, neighbors inform on neighbors, and the person shining your shoes or mixing your cocktail is likely to possess a master's degree. In ramshackle Havana, if you step onto the sidewalk in coat and tie, you will be immediately surrounded by men selling women, cigars, family heirlooms. Even the famous 1950s American automobiles -- DeSotos, Nash Ramblers, Studebakers -- are held together with rusty screws and masking tape, belching smoke.
Having said that, however, I believe that President Obama has made the right decision to establish formal diplomatic relations with Cuba, and to relax (in some as-yet-unspecified form) the American embargo.
To be sure, it is a mistake to suggest, as Obama has, that the embargo has "not worked," or is misguided: In fact, as a means of isolating the Castro regime, the embargo has worked very well. It was part, although a relatively small part, of the wider American policy of containing the Soviet Union. So the embargo is not a mistake but an anachronism: Once the Soviet Union collapsed, a quarter-century ago, the rationale for the embargo ended as well.
Back to diplomatic relations. Of course, no one who has ever set foot inside the U.S. "interests section" in Havana, which is approximately the size of Madison Square Garden, could believe that we have not had some form of diplomatic relations with Cuba since 1961. "Normalizing" ties, therefore, is a purely symbolic act. Still, there should be no mistaking what this means. Diplomatic recognition does not imply approval of the government in question, nor is it inconsistent with sanctions and embargoes -- as the Russians and Venezuelans can attest. Diplomatic recognition is not a gesture of friendship but an acknowledgment of reality: The present government in Havana, for good but mostly ill, has been in power since 1959, and the United States is prepared to concede the fact.
The problem is that we have a history of withholding recognition as a sign of disapproval, and at the State Department in particular, policies have a way of settling into stasis. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the United States declined to recognize Soviet Russia until presidential candidate Franklin Roosevelt made it a campaign issue in 1932. Moreover, this tendency was codified by adoption of the Stimson Doctrine, named for President Hoover's secretary of state, Henry Stimson, who after the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria refused to recognize its puppet government. Between 1949 and 1971, the United States did not recognize the People's Republic of China; no diplomatic relations existed between Vietnam and the United States during 1975-95. The United States and Iran have not exchanged ambassadors in 35 years.
This is historically inconsistent and strategically senseless. We have withheld diplomatic recognition from Castro's Cuba but have growing and extensive diplomatic, commercial, even educational, ties with the far more despotic (and menacing) regime in China. The United States maintained diplomatic relations with Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan until December 1941, and President Roosevelt sent one of his most trusted subordinates -- Admiral William Leahy -- to serve as ambassador to the collaborationist Vichy regime in France. The United States and Soviet Union maintained diplomatic relations throughout the Cold War.
No one would have argued that any of these precedents implied, say, FDR's approval of the Third Reich or Ronald Reagan's softness toward the Kremlin. But American embassies in Nazi Berlin and Communist Moscow, and in other hostile states, gave the United States some measure of strategic latitude in those dangerous places. By the same token, it would be more helpful than not to have a U.S. embassy in Tehran, even in Pyongyang, with all the strategic and intelligence resources it provides.
I am deeply sympathetic to exiled Cubans, and have nothing but contempt for the Castro regime and its American admirers. No doubt, Havana will advertise this new policy as a U.S. concession. So be it. An embassy in Havana will strengthen American leverage in Cuba, especially when Fidel and Raul Castro die, as they soon must.