So Castro is stepping down in favor of his brother, Raul. Everyone from left to right seems to be hoping that this will provide an opening for greater engagement with Cuba. Color me unconvinced. Raul is not all that much better than Fidel, from the point of view of US foreign policy. Yes, experts like to say that he's more pragmatic and flexible than his brother . . . but these assertions have a wan quality. Until recently, he was known as the hard core communist to his brother's wishy-washy centrism. The reasons behind the embargo have not substantially changed.

Those reasons are, I should point out, not that it enhances the welfare of the great American public. One might plausibly have argued that the US had a strong national interest in bringing down the regime when it was an instrument of Soviet influence located very close to our shores. But now that Cuba is the communist bloc, it's probably less threatening to the health and safety of Americans than a strike at the Cheez-Its factory in China. We embargo Cuba because a small, but highly motivated bloc of voters in a swing state wants us to.

The embargo should go; it is an embarassing relic. But it almost certainly won't, because domestic policy dictates otherwise. And even if it did, it's not clear to me that it would do much good. The devastating effect of the embargo on the Cuban economy is highly overstated; Cuba's problems are supply-side, not demand side. The benefits of lowering the embargo will probably be not much more than the transportation savings from shipping what little they produce to Florida rather than Europe. It's not even clear that the Cuban government even wants that much more trade. Daniel W. Drezner had an excellent post on this a while back:

As someone who can plausibly claim some genuine expertise on this issue, I'm mildly in favor of lifting the embargo. First, it's clear that forty years of the embargo has not succeeded in overwthrowing Castro. Given that record, trying the engagement track can't make things any worse.

Second, anyone who thinks that engagement will have a dramatic effect on the situation is fooling themselves. The difference between Cuba and China is not just one of size -- it's also a difference in regime. What I wrote earlier this year in reference to North Korea holds with equal force in dealing with Cuba.

This gets to the distinction between a totalitarian and an authoritarian state. China or Singapore fall into the latter camp -- political dissent is stifled, but in other spheres of life there is sufficient breathing froom from state intervention to permit the flowering of pro-market, pro-democratic civil society. North Korea is totalitarian, in the sense that the state control every dimension of social life possible.

In authoritarian societies, the introduction of market forces and international news media can has the potential to transform society in ways that central governments will not be able to anticipate. In totalitarian societies, reform can only take place when the central government favors it. These societies have to take the first steps towards greater openness before any outside force can accelerate the process. Usually, such societies turn brittle and collapse under their own weight....

For the past decade, the DPRK [and Cuban] leadership has been completely consistent about one thing -- it prefers mass famine and total isolation over any threat to the survival of its leadership. Uncontrolled exchange with the West will threaten that leadership. I have no doubt that Pyongyang [and Havana] is enthusiastic about the creation of segmented economic zones where foreign capital would be permitted -- so long as the rest of North Korean [and Cuban] society remained under effective quarrantine.

Another thing to remember is that Raul is himself 76. What effect does this have on negotiations with him?