MOSCOW — To go or not to go? To trade or not to trade? To invest or not to invest? These are the questions asked nowadays by many Western governments following a recent EU decision to lift sanctions against Havana.

Cuban President Fidel Castro’s regime has always ranked among the worst in Latin America. For 45 years Cuban prisons have overflowed with dissidents, minority groups have been blatantly persecuted, famine has swept the countryside, rationing has been commonplace and an ugly gap has existed between the sumptuous lifestyle of the elite and the misery of the people.

Continental Europe has traditionally been soft on Castro, attracted by his flamboyant anti-Americanism. Occasionally, however, the Cuban dictator has been so unrestrained in his brutality that even Europe has winced — as demonstrated by the European Union’s introduction of sanctions against Cuba in June 2003 following a wave of arrests on the island. Now that Castro has set free some of those arrested, the sanctions have been lifted, causing much controversy worldwide.

Sanctions against dictatorial regimes are tricky. If you don’t impose them, dictators and their crimes against humanity go unpunished. If do you impose them, you make the people of those countries even poorer. And if you think this will eventually lead to a rebellion against the regime, you are mistaken: There will always be enough food for secret police and prison guards.

In addition, the imposition of sanctions means that you will not be represented well on the enemy’s terrain. There will be no reliable network of pro-Western intellectuals who might work against the regime, no access to the minds and hearts of people, no import of modern technologies like computers that are needed to facilitate the freedom of speech and maybe eventually a rebellion against the dictator.

In this respect, the Soviet example is very telling. One might argue that the West’s presence in the Soviet Union was among the major factors in communism’s collapse. American jeans and French movies supplied the people with glimpse of a better lifestyle. Soviet-made jeans looked like gulag uniforms, and people started to understand that there should be a connection between the quality of clothes and the system of government.

Interaction with the West also implied access to things like copy machines — which were more responsible for the collapse of communism than any action taken by the Pentagon. Of course, in those days there were no portable copiers and only offices could import such machines — but one could always bribe the person who operated it, and each new copy of “Animal Farm” that hit the clandestine market mattered.

Regardless of how closely the Soviet secret services watched, Westerners always found a way to communicate with opposition leaders or purged literati — and that meant that an alternative political culture within a dictatorship received some nourishment. It is true that intellectuals represent only a tiny fraction of a population, but it’s also a fact that normally it is this group of people that goes to the streets to protest, and many a dictatorship in modern days was toppled by a crowd of undergraduates.

Penetration of a dictatorial society gives one other options too — for instance you can place more spies there. They won’t provide you with any particularly valuable information, as spies almost never do, but their activities will keep the dictatorship nervous and suspicious of its own cadres. As a result, even the secret police butchers will not feel secure and will soon start spying on each other, thus weakening the entire system.

The U.S. decision to halt interactions with Saddam Hussein in the early 1990s and implement tough sanctions against the regime has had very sad results for American policy. After U.S. President George W. Bush sent troops into Iraq, American forces found themselves on terrain that they didn’t know politically and culturally, where they had few established allies and where they faced numerous domestic conflicts that they didn’t comprehend.

It sounded almost like an invasion of Mars, and it took Americans a year and a half to figure out who would collaborate with them and who would not. And the politicians who have agreed to collaborate with the U.S. do not look terribly reliable.

Rank-and-file Iraqis did not greet Americans as liberators in part because the sanctions against their government had hurt them and they had no evidence of U.S. good will whatsoever. Steady involvement in Iraq after 1991 could have provided the U.S. with a solid power base in the country. This is not to say that there would have been no urban guerrillas in Iraq, but the current bacchanalia of uncontrolled grassroots violence could have been prevented.

The future of Cuba does not look rosy in any case. Castro is no spring chicken, and he has been in ill health for several years. However, his death does not guarantee a transition to democracy. As in North Korea, a successor to a dictator might prove quite viable, and that will prolong the agony of Cubans. A flood of Western pleasure-seekers, academics, journalists and investors could help dissolve the regime even with the old man still entrenched in Havana, and make reforms after his demise more likely.

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