It's good to be the dictator -- just not so good for everyone else.  Photographer: Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photography/Getty Images

Give the Castros a Dose of Free Trade

Raul Gallegos is a Bloomberg View contributor, who covers Latin American politics, business and finance. He was a columnist for Reuters and a correspondent for Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal. He is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University. He grew up in El Salvador and is based in Colombia.
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The U.S. needs a smarter way to achieve regime change in Cuba. It might start by exporting its best weapon -- capitalism -- instead of engaging in more half-baked covert operations.

That brings us, naturally, to Cuban Twitter: this U.S.-built social network was secretly designed and conceived as a way to stir unrest on the island.

The problem with the so-called "ZunZuneo" project -- named after the sound of a hummingbird -- is the same as previous U.S. attempts to bring down Cuba's dictatorship: it was the wrong tool for the job and it was found out by the press.

Those worried about the legality of the scheme can take comfort that it was harmless and a step up from the exploding cigar, or the 637 other improbable plots the U.S. cooked up to eliminate Fidel Castro.

The wonder is that the U.S. persists in thinking its current policies accomplish anything. So let's try a thought experiment: Start dismantling the 53-year-old economic embargo. The U.S. should open up trade, allow selective U.S. investment in the country and encourage American tourists to visit.

Odds are the island's communism will eventually melt away when exposed to free trade with the U.S. It would be much harder for the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, to justify scarcity and inefficiency if their top excuse for it -- the embargo -- no longer exists.

The real question may be whether Cuba is ready for an end to the embargo. The nation's relationship with foreign investors is patchy. Raul's move to allow more individual economic initiative and a new foreign investment law are positive signs. But Cuba will need a push in the right direction.

Of course, expecting a Cuban Spring may be too much to ask. For decades Fidel's iron fist crushed dissent and communist indoctrination convinced many not to rebel. Plus, daily economic struggle zaps any appetite for unrest Cubans once had.

Moreover, squeezing Cuba's economy at this point only serves to ingratiate U.S. politicians with Cuban-American voters in Florida, rather than weakening the island's dictatorship. The worst legacy of U.S.-Cuba relations has been a strong, intractable voting block in a major swing state that has pushed the U.S. to treat a minor Cold War relic as a major enemy regime.

Punishing the small nation for its inefficient economic system and for Cubans' failure to unseat the Castros, only plays to the regime's narrative of U.S. imperialism that victimizes the country in the eyes of the world.

If there is a lesson to be drawn from decades of the U.S.'s failed Cuba policy it is that the island's dictatorship thrives on antagonism and must crumble under the weight of its own failure. But it might take some time for that to happen.

Giving Cubans tools such as social media to help them unshackle themselves from the Castros isn't enough. They need the proper incentives to aspire to something better than state-controlled mediocrity. Should U.S. tourists be admitted, much of their money would no doubt end up in the government's coffers, but enough of it would also empower regular Cubans to demand better living conditions.

The U.S. political establishment can muster some courage because a new generation of Cuban-Americans in Florida wants normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba.

Cuba's regime has survived military invasions, assassination attempts, a half century of embargo and an economy in shambles. It's time to test if the regime can survive closer economic relations with the U.S.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

(Raul Gallegos is a contributor to Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @raulgallegos.)

To contact the editor on this story:
James Greiff at