SANTIAGO — The United States and Cuba can be compared to a divorced couple — condemned to remain close throughout their lives, if only for their children's sake. In this case, the children are more than two million Cuban-Americans that the U.S. counted as residents in 2013.
But the two nations have other ties as well. There is, for example, that outpost of the "good old days" before Castro, when U.S. influence was preponderant in Cuba, namely the Guantánamo army base. It's a city for its 5,500 military residents, complete with a McDonalds, Starbucks and Subway, but also a detention and torture center for suspected terrorists. Therein lies the paradox of Washington's relations with Cuba since 1959: It considers it fit to hold on Cuban soil detainees who enjoy neither the rights afforded them on U.S. territory nor those of enemy combatants — while criticizing, with good reason, the Cubans for doing similar things to their opponents and undercover U.S. agents.
Then there is business. Cuba's more than 11.1 million people need and demand goods and services, and their big neighbor can supply much of them, regardless of Cuba's level of development. That's why the recent announcement about ending hostilities is news.
Yet some respected analysts have warned this is actually a step back. The availability of certain pharmaceutical products, farming equipment, travel, etc. are all just oxygen for a failing economy. But the Cuban economy is not failing. It has already failed.
It exists in a parallel world where all excess revenues are spent on renewing energy infrastructure and maintaining the armed forces. Like "politics" in Cuba, the economy is currently at a standstill. Literally nobody in Cuba has enough energy or capital to create a process of change. Politically, that's good, because there's nothing to ensure that the regime's fall would be a Caribbean version of Czechoslovakia's non-violent Velvet Revolution. And there is certainly no assurance a liberal democracy would emerge from change.
Indeed it would be more likely that a soldier or minor official of this regime wound up imposing his own authoritarian rule. But Cuba has one giant asset: its extraordinary human capital, more healthy and infinitely more educated than all its Caribbean neighbors and much of South America.
So far, the island has not been a place where creativity and human fulfillment have excelled, even if it has eradicated or mitigated many of the health care and educational miseries affecting this part of the region.
President Barack Obama's measures point toward improving certain specific rights and liberties for ordinary Cubans. And it is those people who must then transform their country's institutions. Because at the end of the day, the regime of the Castro brothers is not being maintained by Cuban faith in socialist or communist ideals.
That part has failed. What is holding the entire, shoddy structure together these days is a dramatic dearth of resources, and nationalism. As with Vietnam and China, Cuba is a nationalist autocracy (with a depoliticized yet nationalist citizenry) and already past communism.
Because people with empty plates and pockets rarely inspire constructive and enduring changes that create complex societies, we must welcome the arrival of any prosperity to Cuba and its subsequent benefits for the Cubans.