Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Advice to Obama: Change the policy [Updated]

There is a lot to be defined in the Obama Cuba policy, but if the new Administration decides to move toward engagement, there’s lots of off-the-shelf advice to draw upon.

Take the issue of diplomacy. In his inaugural address, President Obama promised the world that “America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.” That was a message for foreign publics; when it came to governments, he spoke clearly to Cuba and other countries:

“To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Does that mean no diplomacy at all – or just no Presidential or other high-level contact – with a country such as Cuba until there’s a change in human rights practices?

If it means the latter, there is plenty that could be done to initiate and expand cooperation on the issues that affect Cuba and the United States as neighbors. For example, it seems reckless to me that we are not talking to Cuba about environmental protection, especially since Cuba plans more oil drilling in its territorial waters. A spill there would become our problem in the very brief time it would take for the Gulf Stream to carry the oil from Cuba’s waters to Florida’s.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas recruited nine specialists to discuss this and other issues where diplomacy and cooperation could potentially bear fruit for both countries. The result is a new publication, 9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US, described here with a link for free download.

When it comes to discussing engagement between U.S. and Cuban societies, the most powerful recent statement comes from the Cuba Study Group. This Miami-based group has been making quality contributions to the Cuba debate for years through its analyses of U.S. policy, polling, and suggestions for future programs such as microcredits to entrepreneurs. In a new report, it has called for an end to all U.S. restrictions on travel and remittances. Previously, the group had argued that engagement should be conditional, and U.S. travel should be permitted only in exchange for a Cuban concession. The report explains in detail why they changed their mind, and why “the benefits accrued to the Cuban people and Cuban civil society far outweigh whatever financial benefits the Cuban regime may gain from the flow of people and resources.”

[The Cuban American National Foundation reacted by saying that the Cuba Study Group had “decided to join efforts with those who blame the United States first by calling for the unilateral lifting of all travel restrictions.” If you wonder why an end to Cuban American family travel sanctions, which the Foundation supports, would not also be “blaming America first,” ask the Foundation.]

Then there is a very thoughtful paper, The Case for a New Cuba Policy (pdf), by Jake Colvin of the National Foreign Trade Council and a fellow with the New Ideas Fund. The paper focuses on the executive branch, with a set of immediate and medium-term recommendations. It argues persuasively that despite the “codification” of the embargo in the 1996 Helms-Burton law, the executive “retains wide discretion to make significant changes to U.S. Cuba policy” including in the areas of trade, travel, and remittances.

Twelve major U.S. business organizations wrote to the President-elect on December 4, calling for the end of all travel restrictions and removal of “certain restrictions on trade” too. Their letter is here (pdf).

Arturo Lopez Levy, a Cuban American at the University of Denver, wrote this essay on the Cuba policy possibilities under Obama and raises a good question: What to do with the (now vacant) Cuba Transition Coordinator post at the State Department, and what to do with the two Bush transition commission reports? Arturo also knows how to turn a phrase: “In Cuba, unlike in Europe, the U.S. built its own walls in perverse complicity with those erected by the communist system.”

Then there were two surprises.

The human rights organization Freedom House issued a statement January 7 calling for a “strengthened policy” to “advance human rights and democracy in Cuba.” A “key element” of such a policy, the statement reads, “would be the lifting of U.S. legal restrictions on American citizen travel to the island.” Freedom House received the first grant from USAID’s Cuba program in 1996.

And the Council of the Americas issued a report (pdf) that calls for the United States to take steps to “build a positive atmosphere” in advance of the April hemispheric summit in Trinidad, including “a softening of the most punitive measures targeting Cuba, including visits, exchanges, and remittances.”

Finally, a set of recommendations from a Brookings Institute group that I noted here last November.

Your move, Mr. President.

[Update: Senator Lugar's February 2009 call for change in U.S. policy is here.]

5 comments:

Omar said...

"What to do with the (now vacant) Cuba Transition Coordinator post at the State Department, and what to do with the two Bush transition commission reports?"
I have the answer: Phil Peters or Mr. Smith!
Phil, I love you. I know you are American above all and you will put the interest of your country first and that is understandable and appropriate. But with you or through you, it seems, there is some possibility to negotiate. To make a deal, a balanced compromise. What we want:
- The 5 heroes
- Guantanamo
- Cancel debts or claims for expropiation.
What we offer:
- Being normal. Do you think we don't want to be normal? Come on! We are crazy about the possibility of having free elections...as long as the opposition is loyal and I think there are grounds for that. It is not in the US interest it is also in the interests of a lot of brave Cubans that when feeling cought between the US hostility and the reactive Cuban repression that affect them everyday, put Cuba first. Just like you with your lovely America.
Phil Peters for US envoy in Cuba!!!

Phil Peters said...

oh please

Anonymous said...

Omar,
Gee, the 5 Heroes. That is so stalinist of you, Omar.

Anonymous said...

just read the 9 ways cuba us can talk. if these are cuban experts i feel sorry for any American understanding of the Cuban problem. Very simplistic, historically revisionist and while many points well taken and helpful, so much inaccurate assumptions on Cuban perspective. But any dialogue is helpful and hopefully Obama will take a more mature view.

Just one example -- the chapter on academic exchanges. This 'experts' historical perspective of how US inserted itself into Cuba's war of independence, then felt it had to teach Cuba the right way to govern, is typical revisionist claptrap. US butted into Cuba, fought for a miserable six weeks, then imposed US-first interests in Cuba society, economy and politics. It gave Cuba the Platt Amendment, the most insulting piece of colonialism imaginable. And they took over Cuba completely. How any Cuban expert can't connect with the real history, and still write about how wonderful the US was to colonize Cuba, is unbelievable. the Cubans still understand that, the US general public isn't expected to, but so called Cuban experts should finally stop with the same old crap.

Henry Louis Gomez said...

Funny, The Center for Democracy in the Americas doesn't mention democracy once as a goal of their recommendations.